Report: “Can Robots Feel Pain?”

Michael Vail ‘24


Last Monday, I was given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness a lecture entitled “Can Robots Feel Pain? Theorizing AI from Ibn Rushd’s ‘Science of the Soul.’” It was presented by Sylvester A. Johnson, who drove an old car all the way from Virginia Tech to Holy Cross College in Notre Dame, Indiana, and then to College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts after realizing his error. He started his lecture with a lengthy anecdote about how many times he kicked his “stupid, old vehicle” each time it broke down on the highway, and seemed genuinely regretful of the pain he might have caused it.

After a brief recess, Johnson returned to officially begin his lecture with a story of an ambitious individual who sought to start a robot brothel in Houston, in which the robots could be rented by the hour and even bought for a small fortune. Unfortunately, the business venture failed as council members and citizens alike believed it to be unethical and unnecessary. Houston’s mayor prophesied in an official statement, “What’s the point? Virtual reality’s right around the corner.”

Johnson proceeded to explain how pain is subjective, and to contribute with my own experience, I think a good example of that is how my dad can lose half an arm without blinking an eye, but I fall apart at the seams when I get a paper cut. I dubbed this oddity the Paper Cut Phenomenon: the contrast between a situation where our adrenaline kicks in and can minimize the pain experienced by a severe injury, whereas the pain experienced by a minor injury is unfiltered and therefore more impactful. Critics of my theory have suggested that I simply have a low pain tolerance. Critics of my theory can stop emailing me.

As Johnson started to delve deeper into the science of pain, detailing neural processes involving action potentials and ganglion cells, the material became eerily similar to that of my neuroscience test I hadn’t studied for. This made me feel anxious and I elected to stop listening until the end of the lecture.

I was brought back to reality by a thunderous applause as Johnson concluded his thesis that robots could, in fact, feel pain. As he walked off the stage, Johnson’s phone fell out of his pocket, eliciting an empathetic shriek from the audience.

Featured image courtesy of McFarland Center, Holy Cross

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