Philip Gerrans Lecture

21 November 2019


Image of robot thinker

Engineering Empathy

A public lecture by Professor Philip Gerrans, Professor of Philosophy, University of Adelaide and 2019 Institute of Advanced Studies Visiting Fellow.

In a near future the most basic and intimate of human needs from infancy to end of life will be met by artificial intelligence and robotics. Can such systems care for us without feeling for us? Does this matter? Clearly it does because a vast field of social robotics tries to implement human emotion and empathetic concern in artificial systems. However, despite spectacular improvements in AI, emotional feeling remains a last frontier. At the same time the neuroscientific study of emotion has made rapid advances in understanding the relationship between bodily states and emotional feelings. This suggests that there are lessons for AI here. Professor Gerrans discussed the prospects for a genuine artificial intelligence of emotion based on neuroscience. He then discuss whether emotional AI is a worthwhile goal, even in fields such as child and aged care that intuitively require empathy.

Professor Gerrans studied philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University. During his PhD he became interested in the relationship between philosophy, cognitive neuroscience, and psychology. He started out working on autism and theory of mind. He then became interested in psychiatry, especially delusions, writing a book, The Measure of Madness, about the relationship between fundamental neuroscience and psychology and philosophy. He argued there that evidence from cognitive neuroscience supports the idea that delusions are essentially story fragments, not causal theories. He explored the consequences of that contrast for integrative theories of cognitive function.

Professor Gerrans has an ongoing collaboration with researchers at the Swiss Centre for Affective Sciences which informs his research into the connections between emotional processes and self-representation. Affective disorders such as social anxiety and depression are a focus of this research, which links up with much earlier work he did on the Cotard delusion (in which people say they have disappeared or no longer exist). He anticipates that project will lead back to developmental psychology, since it seems many disorders have a source in the developmental relationship between emotional regulation and other aspects of cognition. Most recently he has extended these interests into collaborative work (with Chris Letheby) on the explanation of psychedelic experience. Another recent project is "engineering empathy", which provides a neurocomputationally-based critique of theories of emotional processing in artificial intelligence. The philosophical approach to the mind he finds most congenial is exemplified in the work of Carl Craver, Kim Sterelny and Dan Sperber.