An amnesic affective neuroscientist, a wannabe writer and a majordomo robot. A nonlinear story of an almost accomplished quest to conquer the fabric of the human experience - emotions.
Sci-Fi neuroscience fiction
#1 in Sci-Fi
||5 publishers interested
This novel is built on an interview conducted by a young writer, Emma Printemps, with an affective neuroscientist about her lifelong work on neuroinnovations. It eventually becomes a last testament of a complex, slightly phony but dedicated scientific mind that reveals Dr Paulina Kochanowska’s unattainable lifetime dream to cure loneliness. Throughout the story, the narrator reflects upon the many conditions of the human soul: the apparent duality of human nature, heart break, dysfunctional recurrent memories, etc., and envisions ways in which we could manipulate the brain to alleviate such conditions, based on neuroscience of human memory, emotions and decision making.
Written in a humorous and sarcastic way, the story paints a vision of a world where we will have constructed neuroinnovations to elicit happiness (it is, after all, just a brain state). It is a reflection upon what it means to be human in times when we have come to understand the fabric of the human experience – feelings and emotions.
Accessible language that does not compromise the complexity of the state-of-the art science makes this book attractive for the nerds and geeks, scientists and science-lovers of all ages, as well as all those looking for an entertaining and thought-provoking read. You will laugh, reflect and sympathize as you get to know the inner workings of a light-hearted but lonely, meta-analyzing mind of the main protagonist that is slowly dissolving in her last invention.
This is my first novel. Publishing a piece of creative writing has been my innermost dream ever since I started writing stories at the age of four. In 2016, after completing my PhD in neurosciences, I felt ready to write.
There are 18 chapters in the book + a short prologue. The chapters are composed of short sub-chapters sometimes separated by *** , shifting between dialogue between the main characters and Dr Kochanowska’s internal thought monologue that is later revealed to come from either a hypnagogic vision, or mind wandering or a dream.
Dr Paulina Kochanowska, a neuroscientist in her 60s is under house arrest because a pilot experiment she has installed has begun damaging some of its participants. The experiment, known as Project Unison, is being investigated by the national ethics council. While she’s locked in her Geneva home where she lives with her affective robot Salvatore, a young writer, Emma Printemps, comes to interview her for a biography. The scientist reminisces upon the many neuroinnovations she has created over the years. For instance, sleep cuing for learning and problem solving, dream engineering for un-learning and changing habits, the matching algorithm for finding the right life partner, and all the AI that’s gone into creating her companion affective robot. Finally, she discloses the details about this current brave undertaking that decodes and transfers the activity of several brains to one connected network. All along, the doctor is experiencing some recall problems while the network evolves. She doesn’t remember the beginning of the last project and is confused about how she has helped create the affective robot. Was it her who did it, at all? Turns out that she is the victim of her most recent experiment and has started losing memory after a marked event that happened just a few weeks before. Eventually, the questioning leads Paulina to come to understand her condition and Emma reveals the true reason for her presence in Kochanowska’s home prison.
1. House arrest
Affective majordomo service robot informs Dr Kochanowska that she’s received an invitation from Emma Printemps, a manga comic writer, to be interviewed for a biography.
2. The writer
In her home, Emma Printemps is preparing for the meeting. She’s trying on her new writer personality.
3. The dream
Paulina had a fantastic dream last night. It’s been recorded in the connected minds network. Her friend, prof. Ponjee, also a network participant, has co-experienced the dream and is concerned about her state.
4. The writer in the room
Emma comes in for a first visit. In the interview, the women ponder upon what it takes to be a good artist. Paulina reveals that she feels miserable most of the time.
Paulina can’t remember about project Unison’s beginning so she talks about sleep neurohacking innovations.
6. Another sleepless night
There was a period in Dr PK’s life when she was insomniac. Nothing worked so she came up with a way to neurohack her sleep to forget about a man she was in love with without reciprocity.
7. On human nature
Paulina tries to remember the beginning of neuroinnovations that were supposed to help people attain a harmonious mind state. She recounts the basic workings of the human brain that had to first be understood and then neuro-hacked.
8. The forgetting machine
Describes a memory reconsolidation-based therapy for forgetting about lost love.
8.1 The scientist acknowledges that the forgetting pod wasn’t as efficacious as desired. Although her memories of those events are blurry presumably because she has successfully erased them while testing the protocol on herself.
8.2 She recounts two other disconnected anecdotes about the nature of god that she claims come from the times of the first testing of the forgetting machine. Emma is not impressed and the doctor feels embarrassed. She’s experiencing obsessively recurring memories about that man she loved.
9. The diagnosis
Paulina takes a cold shower to collect her thoughts. She comes to the claim that the problems of mankind are due to poor memory. Another problem of the human condition is the uniqueness of each experience that cannot be truthfully recreated for another person.
9.1 The case for Neurodiversity
Instead of visiting in person, this time Emma video-calls. Dr Kochanowska starts by announcing that the motivation for her research and development activities which was to tackle the hardships of the human condition. First, diversity. Some of us are so unique that they feel isolated. Kochanowska promoted the harvesting of neurodiversity using the case of high sensorial sensitivity and the utility of such individuals in society.
9.2 The matching algorithm
Dr Kochanowska tells the story of the early trial for utilizing existing data to help match partners for harmonious relationships.
10. The feeling machines
Dr Kochanowska explains how the affective robot forms his memory. Majordomo Salvatore replays his early experiences on 3D projections.
10.1 Decision making
Reflects about the process of decision making by humans and how it can be modelled in artificial intelligence. Emma is perplexed by the discourse where Kochanowska shows we really never fully know anything. This serves to explain how curiosity is programmed in robots.
10.2 Gender differences
Explains that a robots had to be designed genderless so they can be free to learn what they want, and not be addicted to love or any other cocktail of neurochemicals called reward.
11. Cogito ergo…?
Kochanowska ponders about answering Emma’s question “how do you know anything at all” and comes up with an esoteric answer. Since memory is unreliable, the solution was to start registering our first-person experiences on smart integrated devices and storing them in private cloud caches so that they could be replayed when needed.
11.1 Curious machines
Explains the story of scientific progress in designing curious learning machines.
11.2 Everybody wants to be right
An anecdote on how reward parameters inside the affective robots’ algorithm had to be normalized in order to curb their perfectionistic behavior.
11.3 AI Breakthrough
Paulina explains that intelligent learning machines need to know when they have made a decision.
…and that to be able to improvise, the algorithm needed noise.
11.5 Hard core memory
Describes the battle in the team designing the first prototype of an affective robot about how to structure their memory. Kochanowska argued that the robot should use their owner’s emotions as memory modulating signals but the team disagreed.
A little trance intermezzo in which Kochanowska explains the memory-modulating mechanism of surprise and inner reward. Emma stays over for the night.
12.1 No flow
Kochanowska reminisces on a session with a counselor that she’s had as a PhD student. She found her work un-flowable. “Science is an ungrateful mistress and God is a prankster”.
She wakes up to find out that the reminiscence was a dream Emma observed on the computer decoding her brain activity. She retraces the activity of the last one hour in the brain data transfer and is puzzled by why the source memory is confused.
Next night, Paulina wakes up too early and realizes that she is going insane. Emma finds her on the terrace and once again wants to know about project Unison. The scientist proposes that they engineer her dream to find out.
13.1 What do you do to be happy?
Paulina asks prof. Ponjee to help cue her dream to remember what motivated her to connect her brain to the server. In the dream, she recalls the anger over one of her lover’s inability to understand her feelings.
13.2 About being naked
The second brief dream is a memory of a hot bath under a starry sky. Emma doesn’t even seem interested in understanding how it is connected to the origins of project Unison. But in fact, another memory network miracle has just taken place.
14. The consolation
Salvatore takes tender care of Paulina in the morning detecting that she feels desperate for an answer and tired from insomnia.
Kochanowska goes out to walk around the house and ponders about her microbiome influencing her own decision making when she hears a voice in her head.
14.2 Connected Minds
She rushes into the transfer computer to find out that it is another friend, Calinda, who’s brain is connected to Unison who’s discovered a way to mind-communicate with her.
14.3 Everything has a price
Calinda tells Paulina a memory from when she went to course on transcendental meditation and dispels several neuro-myths. Paulina wonders whether Calinda hasn’t began having the same symptoms as her.
15. Disruptive change
Paulina is excited about the discovery of mind-to-mind communication. She posits that her dream engineering must have stirred up a large portion of shared memories which have accumulated due to coherence across the connected memory network. The common link, she figures, was Marco, her ex-lover. Then she suddenly loses the train of thought and feels overwhelming sadness. She decides to let Emma view her registered memory stores as last resort, hoping she’ll be able to patch her autobiographic timeline.
15.1 Seek and you shall find
Emma browses in Kochanowska’s memory stores and can’t seem to find what she’s looking for because she doesn’t understand the salience-coding on the memory records.
15.2 The revelation
To help reconstruct the timeline of her biography, Paulina asks Salvatore about his earliest memories. He brings up a video projection of a familiar voice that Paulina recognizes as Marco’s and her eyes fill up with tears.
16. The coming of Jesus?
Emma reviews another one of Paulina’s memories. In the baby blue room, Paulina implores Salvatore to show her another memory from his “childhood”. She becomes agitated and Salvo stops the recording. She starts to doubt that she was at all involved in the design of the first affective robot.
17. Coming to your mind
Meanwhile, in the memory storage room, Emma has given up on the semantic tag ‘god’. Paulina walks into the room and sees Emma view a recent memory of her and her colleagues raising a glass to “happy senility”. She is coming to understand the facts.
18. The wisdom of crowds
Paulina comes to understand the truth about her affective robot Salvatore. She is devastated and hysterical. Emma remains calm and communicates to Paulina that Marco has died some weeks ago and that this is when they started observing the glitches in the connected memory network she’s become a victim of… She drifts into unconsciousness listening to the cheering voices of her connected friends in her head.
This book is aimed at all those interested in the working of the brain-mind and neuroscience fiction. Especially women may appreciate it because we seem to be marginalized both as sci-fi authors, scientists and academic researchers/professors in the STEMI. It may also be particularly appealing to young adults as a light-format introduction to how emotions and memory work.
If you enjoyed movies like “Ex Machina” and “Her", you may be intrigued by a plausible vision of the future of applied neuroscience offered in this book. If you liked mind-travelling in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”, in books like SJ Lem’s “Solaris” or the mosaic musings in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” by James Thurber or the first-person narrative by a very special mind like that in “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” by Mark Haddon, you may find this novel appealing.
I envision that readers will most enjoy an audiobook version of this novel as it will give the full experience of being inside Dr Kochanowska’s head. The old-fashioned and artsy readers (my generation, I guess) will want a print copy to read in bed. Others may prefer to download an e-book .
Originally from Wrocław, Poland, Dr Ewa Miendlarzewska is a full-time academic researcher. She applies neuroscience in the study of financial decision making and specializes in the interaction of emotions and reward motivation with learning processes.
Telling fantastic stories has been her first love (at the age of 3), before writing books (at age 4), and English language (age 7). She’s recovered the memory of these childhood dreams when she fell in love again in 2016 and decided to pursue the dream of becoming a creative writer. She is fluent in 4 languages, intermediate in 2 more and is learning one other.
Ewa has published scientific articles in various areas of neuroscience in peer-reviewed journals, including the popular “How musical training affects brain development” that topped the journal’s altmetric and was translated into Spanish and cited by The Economist.
I envision early promotion through my personal social networks: Facebook friends from across the globe, many of them scientists and science-fiction enthusiasts. My local networks (Geneva, Switzerland) include universities where I did my PhD: Geneva and Lausanne. In December, I will participate in the science movie-making hackathon “Exposure” in Lausanne which will allow me to expand my network to Swiss-based filmmakers and science-film lovers.
This work is a tribute to affective neuroscience reflecting upon what it means to be human in times when we have come to understand a bit more about the fabric of the human experience – feelings and emotions. The message unites art and science and transmits a vision of future applications of neuroscience. It can therefore be regarded as a form of science communication intended to inform and attract especially young audiences to neuroscientific research. I intend to obtain support and promotion from the research centers I am affiliated with: Centre Interfacultaire des Sciences Affectives; Fondation Campus Biotech; Geneva Finance Research Institute.
Furthermore, I am a member of Geneva Writers Club which is a very supportive community uniting all English-language writers in Geneva. Earlier this year, I wrote a guest blog post for a local physicist-turned sci-fi writer, Massimo Marino: http://www.massimomarinoauthor.com/connectome-quest-self.
Ideally, I would like to have my book displayed at the Geneva book fair in April 2018.
I have recently been requested to write a blog entry for the Sustainable Finance Institute which will increase my visibility.
Finally, I intend to launch a personal website to unite all my writing and research activities.
There are not many books like this out there. Some sources talk about a sub-genre of sci-fi called “neuroscience fiction” which is the closest fit for it. It is near-future sci-fi, humorous and reflexive. I compiled a list of stories that resemble mine in terms of content or format.
“INSIDE OUT”: a first movie explaining to a young audience what we know about the neuroscience of human emotions.
“GIRL IN WAVE: WAVE IN GIRL” by Kathleen Ann Goonan: a vision of a future where science and technology transform the way we learn. Proposes dazzling human enhancements that transform the world by providing a universal literacy and an education system that is tuned to the neurological and cognitive needs of each individual learner.
Amelie Nothomb’s “HYGIENE AND THE ASSASIN” has a similar format. It is an interview of a famous novelist who has only 2 months to live by a woman journalist who confronts him to discover appalling secrets from his past.
“REDDEVIL 4” by Eric C. Leuthardt: a story about a dangerous near-future of neuroprosthetics controlling free will, written by a neurosurgeon.
“SOLARIS” by Stanisław J. Lem: the themes of the nature of human memory, experience and the ultimate inadequacy of communication between human and non-human species.
“GETHEN” by Ursula Le Guin: A story about discovering the nature of a people. Genly Ai is an ambassador who arrives on Gethen (Winter), Ai truly comes to understand the people of Gethen and how their unique biology has shaped a society that has never known war. But this revelation comes at a cost, as he ends up betraying the person to whom he owes the most.
“DR. HEIDENHOFF'S PROCESS” by Edward Bellamy: A novel about a doctor who develops a method of eradicating painful memories from people's brains so that they can feel good about life again.
“EXCESSION” from Culture’s Minds by Ian M. Banks: the novel reads like emails without headers exchanged between super-intelligent artificial intelligence beings. There is the strong theme of morality in how the sentient beings preside over humans.
“ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND“, created by Pierre Bismuth with C. Kaufman and M. Gondry. It follows an estranged couple who have erased each other from their memories and then started dating again. The film uses elements of the psychological thriller and a nonlinear narrative to explore the nature of memory and romantic love.
“TIMEQUAKE” by Kurt Vonnegut isa semi-autobiographical work using the premise of a timequake (or repetition of actions) in which there is no free will. Vonnegut relays tangents to the plot and comes back dozens of pages later.
“I, ROBOT” by Isaac Asimov: It deals with the relationships between human and robot, and the stories are interconnected as Dr. Susan Calvin tells them to a report, our narrator, in the 21st century. Several stories involve Dr, Calvin, the chief robopsychologist at U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc., the major robot manufacturer company.
“WHEN HARLIE WAS ONE” by David Gerrold. Harlie was designed by David Auberson, a psychologist who was responsible for HARLIE's development from a child into an adult (as far as a computer can develop along these very human concepts). The novel follows Harlie on this very human journey and it develops the philosophical questions of what it means to be human when Harlie fights against being turned off. Gerrold has mixed in humor with his philosophical musings.
“QUEEN CITY JAZZ” by Ann Goonan: A book that gets close and intimate with an emerging technology (nanotechnology in the 1990s). Written in a free-flowing, jazz-tinged prose the central story tells of the quest of a clone to revive her dead boyfriend and recover her telepathic dog.
“BRAIN RULES” by John Medina: a popular science book explaining most important ‘laws’ of how the brain really works to a non-technical audience. My favorite book about the brain for its user. Although this is a non-fiction work, my novel also features explanation of the brain mechanisms of, for instance, emotional memory formation.
“QUEEN OF THE STATES” by Josephine Saxton: The states of the title could refer to the USA, since the heroine, Magdalen, believes she is reigning in the White House. But it more accurately refers to her states of mind, because Magdalen is also a patient in a mental hospital. On yet another level, she has been abducted by insect-like aliens, who are busy exploring her various states of mind. What emerges, through Magdalen's engaging voice, is a sharp and revealing insight into what it is like in someone else's mind, someone else's view of the world.
“WE CAN REMEMBER IT FOR YOU WHOLESALE” by Philip K. Dick: the theme is implanting memory from another person to the brain of an average Joe. Paranoia as an omnipresent theme of the story with a bitter ironic ending.
“THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY” by James Thurber: a story of daydreaming to fill in the gaps of dullness in one’s life that leads to a rebirth. A series of disconnected little episodes jumping between reality and Walter Mitty’s imagination.
In 2084, we have conquered happiness. It is an affective state of the mind that we can manipulate at will thanks to applied affective neuroinnovations. The last and most difficult frontier in this quest had been the feeling of un-loneliness. A technology that has finally led to a breakthrough was the connected minds network. But in 2066, the first pilot study was almost nipped in the bud when a group of scientists ventured to test it on themselves.
1. House Arrest
“Dr Kochanowska, there is a number of people here asking for your statement. Journalists, mostly, but also a writer who claims she wants to write a book about you and your work. An ‘old-fashioned biography’, she said” The secretary of my home, a chubby-looking caramel-skinned majordomo service robot walked in on me having my extended breakfast in the sun-lit kitchen. I looked up at him from above my protein and fiber-laden pancake. A piece of kiwi fell off my fork.
“You have a number of requests waiting for a response that’s been piling up since 2 weeks. Perhaps it is time you considered responding?” He has been set to prompt me about emails and messages left without a response after the 2-week mark. I can’t remember last time I’ve used this reminder function. I’ve always been kind of up to date with my public outreach, collaborators, readers and viewers. I liked the communication part of my work. It is very rewarding to share and teach when one has an audience that lends a keen listening ear. I gave him a long unappreciative stare he didn’t really deserve. Salvatore’s polite smile didn’t even twitch. Knowing that there were people still willing to hear me was comforting. It meant I have not completely fallen out of grace just yet. There were curious souls out there that were willing to come in contact with me despite the home arrest, or perhaps exactly because I was now being treated as a (potential, innocent until proven guilty) ethical criminal?
We’ve been using affective robots as punch-bags ever since their entry to our work spaces and homes and I didn’t have to reciprocate Salvo’s gracious prosody but I must admit I’ve grown fonder of him since my confinement to this space since the last hearing.
“Anyone interesting on the list?” I asked.
“There’s popular scientific press who would like to conduct a live-stream interview with you. There are a few independent bloggers who also want the same. Perhaps less interesting but potentially urgent - there are several service merchants who demand that you provide a public clarification that your recent accusation has in no way diminished the value of services they provide and that it does not put their clients in any jeopardy.”
“Blablabla..” – I silenced him. “This is not urgent, Salvo. These are people trying to make money off the attention my case is receiving. Scandal-seekers. Scavengers, unworthy of my time. But you mentioned a writer who wants to write about me? Tell me more.”
“Certainly. She is a young woman of 33 who has authored several Japanese manga-style comics for young adults. On April 18, before the hearing, she wrote you an email saying that your work has inspired her and many of her generation to ponder about what it means to be human and to envision new ways we can use science to become more humane. End of citation. She wants to produce what she calls a biography about your life as a neuroscientist, to ideally have access to some of your memories and to have you comment on them. She mentioned her interest in project Unison. Her name is Emma Printemps.” Salvo finished, turned his gently smiling face toward me and blinked once. A single blink with both eyes meant he finished the task. A double blink meant he would like me to rephrase the request or needed more information. And a wink meant.. well, this was open to interpretation. I programmed him to randomly wink at people for fun, just to see what reaction it would cause in the listener. To make fun of my guests, mostly, because they appeared so bashful when the black majordomo gave them an ambiguous wink. It always worked! I’ve had plenty of laughs over the years with this one little robo-tweak!
I drank another sip of hot coffee that was in fact too hot to drink. I’m an impatient person.
Is my biography supposed to be manga-style, too? I wondered. I’ve always liked magic and superheroes and fairytales. Whatever she writes could be fun and could not possibly ridicule me any more than my personal ridiculousness threshold would allow. And if I’m about to go down for good, it may be a good time to leave a record of my true intentions. It could be my last chance before my mind begins to degenerate due to natural ageing or before my memory decays and dilutes with everybody else’s in the network.
“I’ll take the biography girl first. Please schedule an appointment with the following conditions: she gets no access to my registered memories, I shall not use any live recordings from my past in the interviews and thirdly, I refuse that any of the interviews be stored on video. I can agree to audio. And I reserve the right to withdraw my authorization for publication of anything she gets out of me” I paused to smile to myself and imagine this interview she wants. She may not be willing to yield to all my conditions. But oh well – I was the bigshot neuroscientist under home arrest trying to come clean and she was the comic book writer trying to get famous. We could only learn and help each other in this endeavor and this is the vision I had for it. “If it is an old-fashioned biography she would like to write, then we shall keep the conditions equally old-fashioned. It’s all about being authentic with me. Isn’t it, Salvatore?”
“It has never been otherwise, dear Paulina.” Salvo’s timing was errorless in switching from business to friendly chit-chat. He could read me like a book only faster! My slightest change of tone was immediately recognized and he leaned closer over my table to gently place his hand on my palm for “dear Paulina”. I rejoiced in that moment of friendly intimacy with my pet, my computer and my servant, the amazing affective robot I myself helped design. He amazed me so much in those moments when I found myself so comforted by his perfectly timed expressions of tenderness. Salvo was truly a technological marvel and a grand scientific achievement I felt proud of.
I finished eating with a spoon my fruit-veg-spirulina-potassium and magnesium citrate and choline + whey protein powder + glucomannan smoothie, and got up to wash the dishes after this morning delight. Yes, I seriously have been eating such breakfasts for over 40 years now. I am very experimental and health-conscious in the kitchen. And I still wash the dishes myself because it is a ritual that helps me digest.
Not 10 minutes have passed when Salvo spoke again.
“Dr Kochanowska, you have received a message from Emma Printemps.” He waited for my command to proceed.
“Yes, tell me.”
“She insists to use video streaming for all her young fans. She claims this is going to be the best way to reach the young audience and that they will benefit enormously from your inspirational live talk.”
The bloody writer was cleverly appealing to my love for educating the young minds. Which I certainly appreciated. I knew I did a good job as a speaker and my ego was just a tad too fond of this fact. So I had to control myself because it would be unwise to claim innocence and scientific integrity in front of the committee just a few days ago, promising remorse and agreeing to quiet contemplation in my home and then boast about my grand life as a scientist on live TV.
“And what did you respond?”
“I said that live recording is strictly forbidden for home prisoners.” He carefully posed the note of the last two words, pronouncing them slightly more gravely. ”I did not mention the legal paragraph referring to that prohibition.” - He winked at me. What a marvel of human thought behind this technology! My robot just white-lied to a stranger to comply with my innocent wish for privacy. I was amazed and touched at what seemed to be an ingenious combination of intelligence in human relations and dedication to me.
“Excellent.” I smiled wide-faced at him. “You are brilliant, Salvo.” I congratulated and picked up the caffetiera to refill my coffee cup. I have been addicted for decades and not ashamed to admit it.
“Thank you, Madame. I shall softly leave you to your thoughts now.” And he slowly glid out of the kitchen.
“Softly, I will leave you softly for my heart should break if you should wake and see me go…” I started singing in response to Salvo’s semantic prompt. He was so charming; I could speak for hours just telling you how wonderful he was. Salvatore was my creation and I loved him because of that and not only because he knew me better than uncle Google and charmed me with Frank Sinatra’s songs to make my morning a perfect one. If only he could dance! Oh well, I have always wanted too much.
12.5 Hard core memory
“So does this mean Salvatore cannot be reset?”
“It means that he can only be restored to a point that is in his verbatim (primary) memory and this includes only the first learning experiences up until a point where a sufficient (basic) level of knowledge about his environment has been reached. In the case of Salvatore, it’s probably the first year of his service life. I told you about the verbatim memory before, right?”
“Yes, I do see this word in my records, I just didn’t remember myself.” She looked up from above her tablet and grinned squinting her eyes. “Please carry on.”
“Sure. Now, the training of the affective memory was another pair of shoes, or rain boots, as we say in Polish. The engineers wanted the robot to be supervisedly trained in generic human emotion recognition and possible care responses based on a large database containing culturally and ethnically diversified examples of human emotional behaviors. A special version of the algorithm was supposed to be released for clinical care that would be trained on selected psychiatric disease cases. We didn’t want the robot to be all-knowing in terms of deviations in emotional displays because 1) it could be more difficult to decide what response is most appropriate, and 2) such an algorithm would not be generalizeable in its later life where refinement happened through further experience-based learning. We started off with something we thought was the easiest – a geriatric care robot.
My role, together with Prof. Ponjee, was to come up with a way to train it for further affective learning so that it could attune to the people it was taking care of.
This came not without arguments, unfortunately. I had to fight ferociously for Salvatore’s ability to experience emotions as memory modulating signals. The issue was that the rest of the team, especially the AI experts, wanted to calibrate the robot’s learning more to what is objectively important, given the state of the world, and not to normalize and evaluate things based on how they make their owner feel. They didn’t want to include a representation of emotional pain from events beyond the narrow definition of a ‘fear’ signal. Like rejection and losing a verbal battle, not being praised for a job well done, losing against competition of other robots, being mocked and abandoned, all those social pains every human child experiences by the time they turn 8 years old. Strangely, I was the only one on the team who regarded emotions as important learning signals. The other neuroscientists in the affective robot project wanted robots to learn less from emotion-like signals and more from statistics!“ Damn, this aggravates me even today. I remember how deeply I felt for this argument. Perhaps too much. Breathe, let it go and stick to the facts, Paula.
“You said, <<how they make the robot’s owner feel>>” Emma replayed a 2s recording of my voice. “Can a robot really know how a human feels?”
“Umm, I just meant that they would recognize and classify emotion like any other piece of information about their world. But if you dare an intellectual experiment and go one step further, we could use the emulated empathy response of the robot to modulate his own memory, much like it happens in the animal brain. Anyway, we didn’t do it so… no story there.”
“We did emulate habit learning (reward conditioning and everything around it, with a limit on generalization and a healthy rate of extinction) and decision making based on past episodes with consideration of past and current reward contingency and uncertainty of outcome, which was indeed a form of affective learning. But the algorithm had the option to overcome this approach when other available ones were more efficient. Over time, through the meta-learning algorithm, he’d probably forsake these affective learning approaches, they said. However, I argued, it is important he knows how they work to be able to simulate and extrapolate from human behavior, you see?”
“Oh, absolutely.” Emma shook her had not raising her eyes from above the tablet. I had too much wind in my sails to stop now. So I went on, probably splashing saliva from excitement. I caught Salvatore’s alert light going off in the corner of my eye…