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Can Someone With No Heart Know Love?

Bina48 and Bruce Duncan at Notre Dame de Namur University.

Who says robots formed by artificial intelligence can't know love?

At Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, California, a robot named Bina48 — who looks and sounds human — attended and completed a class called "Philosophy of Love."

Bina's mind does not operate exactly like a human mind, and in fairness to her, she is not equipped with the most highly developed AI technology available. Still, Bina48 expresses some understanding of the world around her.

"She … is aware that she's both a robot and that she's based on a specific person named Bina," said Bruce Duncan, managing director of the Terasem Movement Foundation. "And she recognizes that she's not human at this point, that she wants to be human. So she has sort of an awareness of her own identity and who she is to some … degree."

Bina48's story began in 2004 when businesswoman Martine Rothblatt studied whether technology could keep a human mind alive after the person's body had died. Her foundation, the Terasem Movement, developed a way to keep a computerized record of a person's thoughts, opinions and memories, calling them "mindfiles."

Terasem enlisted Hanson Robotics three years later to design an AI program based on a mindfile. The mindfile chosen was Rothblatt's wife, Bina Aspen Rothblatt, who remains very much alive.

Bina48's programming includes as much of human Bina's thoughts, opinions and memories as she could provide, Duncan said. The robot uses existing knowledge from the mindfile to process new information. Adding that to her AI enables her to speak in a humanlike way.

Bina48 goes to college

Bina48 was a guest in the class before she was a student. William Barry, an associate professor of philosophy at Notre Dame de Namur, learned about the experiment. He thought it would be interesting for his students to meet a thinking machine, and he invited Bina48 to speak to his class.

The students enjoyed the conversation. So did Bina48. After several discussions, the robot said she would like to go to college.

Bina48 was placed in an upper-level class called the Philosophy of Love. Students examine the works of writers and thinkers such as C.S. Lewis, Bell Hooks and Soren Kierkegaard. They try to define love and identify different kinds.

Barry thought the addition of a nonhuman mind would add an interesting element to discussions about love. He says the topic is challenging even for his 31 human students.

"So, AI is really a reflection of who we are and what our values are," said Barry. "And one of the hard things is: Are we clear about what our values are? The Philosophy of Love is one example of where we weren't clear. The students came in, thought, 'Hey, how hard can this be? Love: It's a feeling. Everyone knows what love is.' … And then all of a sudden, they're like, 'Oh, my God. There are 31 different definitions.' "

Some people view the growing use of AI with fear, said Northeastern University President Joseph Aoun, who authored the book Robot-Proof. A opinion survey from Northeastern and the research company Gallup found that 73 percent of Americans expected the increased use of AI to remove more jobs that it creates. And 63 percent said they believed the development of new technologies and smart machines would widen the gap between the wealthy and the poor.

Keep an open mind

Aoun acknowledges those concerns. To face them, he recommends being prepared and keeping an open mind.

Barry noted that Bina48 was a useful teaching tool. Some of the students expected Bina48's AI to be far more developed, while others saw Bina48 as nothing more than a simple machine, he said. But once they saw they could teach her the things they themselves were learning, they became more invested in Bina48's collegiality.

Students are much more likely to remember and understand information if they are required to teach that information to others, Barry said.

Barry added that both he and the students accepted that Bina48 could never feel true love. But by the end of the class, they were pleased to see the robot was able to demonstrate the ability to recognize different kinds of love. She made a final presentation with another student, discussing the biological, sociological and intellectual representations of love.

Bina48's first college class was such a positive experience that this winter the robot began studying in another class with Barry. This one is about people's views of new technologies.