Artificial Emotional Intelligence: Reflections On AI And Autism

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Every Monday and Wednesday for five years I have hustled after work to make dinner, and take my son to robotics at 5:30. It is a hassle, but a priority for us.

There are not many opportunities for a kid with Autism to learn how to work in a group, how to handle the crowds at competitions, and most importantly, what it feels like to finally be good at something other people think is important.

The robotics organizations are fond of saying that robotics is the only school sport in which every single player can turn pro.

Initially, the middle school robotics team members learned to make small, simple robots from kits. Then they gradually began to attempt larger robots, capable of more complex tasks, and requiring a human to control.

In his 5th year of competition, my son has moved on to ‘autonomous robotics’; he and a team of middle school kids designs, builds, and programs a robot to move, retrieve objects, and follow a course during a competition.

The students on the team are a handful of bright, STEM-inspired girls; but mostly boys – the bulk of which seem to fall somewhere on the Autism spectrum.

My son is a programmer. He was a late talker – a very late talker; but his gift for programming languages puts him far ahead of his class. Most kids his age would hand over a device displaying a DOS screen; thinking it was broken. He is as comfortable on a black screen with line after line of program codes as someone who has been speaking the language of robots his whole life. And in a sense; he has.

Some Mondays and Wednesdays we can’t fit dinner in between work and robotics, so we stop at the grocery store deli after for pizza.

One evening as we ate our Manager Special dinners, my son looked across the table at me intensely.

“Mom?”

His face was tense and jittery. His eyes were focused sharply at the corners of mine; as close to direct eye contact as he gets. This was serious.

I waited until he was able to speak. The words took so long, as they always had.

When he was little, his first words were slow to come at all, “Too late.”, the doctors had said.

When he did begin to speak back then, at first it was in the wrong patterns.

“Children who cannot say “milk” should not be worried about saying “owl””, they had said.

What if he wanted to talk about owls though?

It has always taken so long for his thoughts to process into language and then language to become words.

He still stutters and sputters and perseverates but after years of therapy and work and punishment from teachers and church ladies and summer camp counselors who demand, “Look me in the eye and answer me right now, young man!”; he has learned.

“When do you become a cyborg?” he finally articulated.

My neurotypical daughter and I discreetly gave each other the side-eye. She is his best coach and fiercest advocate, and, naturally, also his harshest critic. The stakes are highest for her. Siblings are a reflection of each other; they are the same brand and at only two years apart, time offers her no cushion.

He gave no further explanation or context (he never gives context). I had to figure this one out on my own.

“Oh… you mean at what point does a human have so many robotic parts that they are no longer human, but not enough that they are a robot?”

Yes! He nodded, excited his message had been received.

He had to be taught many techniques to fake emotional intelligence, like looking at the corners of people’s eyes, and quickly scanning through his mental flashcards of facial expressions until he lands on one that best matches his database.

“I still have to think about it”, he told me. “It goes so fast it’s almost like not thinking anymore but I still do.”

Tears came to my eyes when he said it.

“That person’s sad”; he said. “That’s what it’s like.”

If he had to learn so much about how to be human; was he human? I saw the question in his concerned brown eyes.

“It takes a lot bud”, I said speaking with the same authority bestowed upon all mothers in the position of comforting their children. “Like at least 50% if not more. And it probably matters what parts too. Like if you had your whole brain replaced by a robot brain, I don’t know. Maybe then. But like even if most of you was robot – you’re still human.”

My son can program a robot to do many things. He learned how by his own experiences of trying something, looking at the response, correcting his mistake, and trying again. He has had endless patience with himself even when, I am ashamed to say, I haven’t.

He has persisted and tested and corrected a million times over to fill his database with human emotions so that in a split second he can scan it, identify it, and call up the appropriate human response.

It is exactly the same way that artificial intelligence works – but what do you call it when the recipient of the programming, the ‘robot,’ is human?

Or, as my son wondered, are they?

Teaching kids on the Autism spectrum how to mimic typical human responses adds a new component to the age-old philosophical question, What does it mean to be human?

If my son does not possess the ability to process typical human emotional responses and has to be taught, or programmed, in exactly the way a robot does, is he fully human? Cyborg? Robot?

Cyborgs are products of science fiction, so there is no real answer, but the question is fair.

At what point does a human incorporate so much artificial intelligence that they are no longer human?

Robots don’t want to learn, they are programmed. I cannot say with certainty that, left to his own devices, my son would have been inclined to learn emotional intelligence.

I may be superimposing my own wishes on it; but he did seem to want to connect to us somehow – he just didn’t know how. Maybe I am an excellent programmer like my son.

He passes for “normal” quite often now; especially if the exchange is brief.

When is the line crossed? What makes us human in the first place – the ability to make eye contact and intuitively assess feelings? Or being willing to learn so that you can be part the group?

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