UPDATE: this story has now been updated. See more below.
Researchers at Toshiba’s Akimu Robotic Research Institute were thrilled ten months ago when they successfully programmed Kenji, a third generation humanoid robot, to convincingly emulate certain human emotions. At the time, they even claimed that Kenji was capable of the robot equivalent of love. Now, however, they fear that his programming has taken an extreme turn for the worst.
“Initially, we were thrilled to see a bit of our soul come alive in this so called ‘machine,’” said Dr. Akito Takahashi, the principal investigator on the project. “This was really the final step for us in one of the fundamentals of the singularity.”
Kenji was part of an experiment involving several robots loaded with custom software designed to let them react emotionally to external stimuli. After some limited environmental conditioning, Kenji first demonstrated love by bonding with a a stuffed doll in his enclosure, which he would embrace for hours at a time. He would then make simple, but insistent, inquiries about the doll if it were out of sight. Researchers attributed this behavior to his programmed qualities of devotion and empathy and called the experiment a success.
What they didn’t count on were the effects of several months of self-iteration within the complex machine-learning code which gave Kenji his initial tenderness. As of last week, Kenji’s love for the doll, and indeed anybody he sets his ‘eyes’ on, is so intense that Dr. Takahashi and his team now fear to show him to outsiders.
The trouble all started when a young female intern began to spend several hours each day with Kenji, testing his systems and loading new software routines. When it came time to leave one evening, however, Kenji refused to let her out of his lab enclosure and used his bulky mechanical body to block her exit and hug her repeatedly. The intern was only able to escape after she had frantically phoned two senior staff members to come and temporarily de-activate Kenji.
“Despite our initial enthusiasm, it has become clear that Kenji’s impulses and behavior are not entirely rational or genuine,” conceded Dr. Takahashi.
Ever since that incident, each time Kenji is re-activated, he instantaneously bonds with the first technician to meet his gaze and rushes to embrace them with his two 100kg hydraulic arms. It doesn’t help that Kenji uses only pre-recorded dog and cat noises to communicate and is able to vocalize his love through a 20 watt speaker in his chest.
Dr. Takahashi admits that they will more than likely have to decommission Kenji permanently, but he’s optimistic about one day succeeding where Kenji failed.
“This is only a minor setback. I have full faith that we will one day live side by side with, and eventually love and be loved by, robots,” he said.
Please see the update for this story: An update on ‘Kenji, the robot programmed to fall in love’