Dr. Sylvester A. Johnson Delivers Lecture on Robotic Feeling

Caroline Muniz ‘23

Features Editor

Sylvester A. Johnson Photo courtesy of Virginia Tech.

Sylvester A. Johnson of Virginia Tech was able to visit Holy Cross for his talk, Can Robots Feel Pain? Theorizing AI from Ibn Rushd’s “Science of the Soul.” He was able to discuss the material, the intellect, and the soul with Holy Cross students and faculty. 

He began the talk by stating that there is irony in the title, Science of the Soul. For centuries, intellectuals have attempted to understand the inner workings of the soul, which now includes the relationship between the organic and the inorganic such as AI. “Can things know things? Can things feel things?” Johnson asked. 

Before explaining the theories of Ibn Rush’d, Johnson described the ways in which robots have been made and utilized for various purposes, such as sex. However, they were not made for sensation. He then proposed the idea of whether or not it is conceivable for a Robot to form pain. Pain has been applied “unevenly” to populations around the world, reflecting different power dynamics as well as politics. One man specifically used Black women who were forced to be slaves in order to develop medical advances in gynecology. He used them under the assumption that they would feel less pain than White women, which is completely untrue. But Johnson used this example to emphasize that pain is subjective and that there is no objective measurement of pain. 

Ibn Rushd proposed the idea that “the intellect is neither a body nor a power in a body.” Johnson expanded on this idea that intellectual activity cannot be contained in something physical and in instead based upon sensation. Although we attempt to find commonality within our experiences, we all experience the world using different measurements and instrumentations. Therefore, he explained that the science of the soul includes the ability to experience the world. 

Johnson was able to explain the difference between sensing and knowing. Where sensing is the nerves in our brain perceiving the light that bounces of an object, knowledge involves experiencing the object. However, we can experience something without necessarily using our senses to do so. We can see a beach and hear the waves without necessarily being there and the science of the soul attempts to explain this. As Johnson explained, PTSD exemplifies this idea because it creates the experience of something in the absence of it.

AI has the ability to create networks of processing power that is similar to thinking. Just as cells send signals to other cells, a large enough threshold of power creates a pattern in which AI can create the same networks. Therefore, Johnson asked the question, “Are thinking and reasoning exclusive to humans and other animals?” 

Johnson also proposed the AlphaGo thesis, which involves an AI system that learned the game Go. It is an extremely advanced AI that absorbed information about the game and interpreted it for itself to learn strategies that humans take years to learn. 

Johnson also told the story of Natahan Copeland, a man with a spinal injury who was paralyzed from the neck down. A chip was implanted into his brain that allowed him to control a robot hand and physically feel and handshake. Johnson included a photo in which he shakes the hand of Barack Obama, and emphasized that he was able to feel his hand. AI truly has great and borderline dangerous potential. Johnson ended his talk by stating, “it is perhaps, the nature of things to feel.”

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