Dr. Ashraf Al-Faqih: Love As A Robotic Challenge

28 October 2018

Dr. Ashraf Al-Faqih is a Saudi sci-fi author, academician and a researcher with a PhD degree in computer sciences from Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario. He worked previously as a computer sciences lecturer at King Fahd University for Petroleum and Minerals, and as a social relations and engagement supervisor. He is currently the head of the Communications and Relation at King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (Ithra). He has written many novels, such as “Al-Mukhawzaq” and a collection of stories under the title “Nayyif wa Ushrun Hayat [twenty something lives]”. In the last two decades, he made contributions to many cultural publications around the Kingdom, such as the “Mawhiba [Talent]” magazine issued by the King Abdulaziz and his Companions Foundation for Giftedness and Creativity (Mawhiba), and “Al-Qafila [Caravan]” issued by Saudi Aramco. He worked sporadically as an opinion writer for different newspapers. On 19 October 2018, he gave a lecture entitled "An Algorithm for Love" as part of the Tanween program at the Dhahran-based King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (Ithra). In the lecture, he talked about the advancement of science in making technologies and gadgets imitating the human brain, and about the potentials of making robots able to process the feelings of love in the near future. He also discussed the hurdles standing in the way of making these machines, and the consequences that might ensue.

Dr. Faqih started the talk by defining the lecture’s title: “An Algorithm for Love.” Algorithm, from the Arabic word “Khuwarizm”, is a set of logical mathematical rules. It was named after scholar Muhammad Bin Musa Al Khawarizmi from Khawarizm, from what is known today as Uzbekistan. He discovered a way to solve mathematical problems by following certain steps that sift through solutions and apply them to determine their suitability. Computers and programming devices can run these processes. As for love, Dr. Faqih said that it cannot be defined as its meaning has eluded poets, philosophers and thinkers. For Imam Bin Hazm Al-Andalusi, love is a connection stemming from an enormous entity divided among people. For physician and thinker Mustafa Mahmoud, love is electrical pulses originating from the brain, instructing glands to secrete hormones that push body parts to react, forming what we call love. There is obviously a huge difference between the two definitions, not to mention that there are many forms of love: love for living things, love for inanimate objects, love for abstract concepts, and so on.

Dr. Faqih then raised an important question: Will future machines be able to love human beings after reaching a high level of intelligence or consciousness? He referred to futurist Raymond Kurzweil’s book “The Age of Spiritual Machines” which discusses the idea of singularity and the possibility of machines reaching human or above-human intelligence. The writer postulated that this will happen in the next few decades in light of the exponential advancement of technology. He also argued that we are currently witnessing some aspects of it in our daily lives, as machines are now able to recognize and interpret facial expressions and analyze consumers’ data to determine their emotional and psychological states. Dr. Faqih posed important questions: What possibilities can result from this level of consciousness in machines? What kind of love can result from that between humans and machines? Love for humans is a very complicated process that goes through changes and fluctuations, some positive and some negative.

To answer these complicated questions, Dr. Faqih talked about the importance of having laws to govern the ethics of robots, agreed by all as the starting point of thinking. The future is fraught with threats posed by smart devices that raise ethical issues we find ourselves having to face for the first time in the history of humankind. Examples of these issues are the freedom allowed for these machines and their potential ability to feel the pains of love and express it, or even to inflict those pains upon humans. Luckily, Dr. Isaac Asimov came up with the Three Laws of Robotics as part of his visionary work in the 1940s. The first law prohibits robots from injuring humans, the second orders them to obey humans, and the third says that they have to protect themselves unless this conflicts with the first or second laws.

On this premise, Dr. Faqih said that the answer to the question of whether or not the sublime feeling of love can be turned into a mathematical algorithm that can be taught to machines is in the affirmative. Psychology literature is rife with attempts to reach a mathematical formula to describe love. However, he wondered about the ability to apply these formulas to machines that might appear unfriendly or scary to some in terms of taste, human touch, aesthetics and expression of emotions. He also raised a question about our desire to develop such machines, and whether we would want them to love us and be loved by us to fill a void we have. Would we want them to accept us with our flaws and project back to us a perfect picture of ourselves?

Dr. Faqih said that the first problem in his opinion in making such machines is the difficulty in imitating the source of love, the brain, whose workings are still unclear to us. Furthermore, the task of the human brain is foremost to serve the human body and put its biological interest above everything else. This would entail major threats should machines adopt this principle, as this will make them cause damage to the loved ones in a way that conflicts with the Three Laws of Robotics. Moreover, despite the many theories around it, we still do not understand the neurological origin of love and how the brain is able to process it. How can we imitate something we do not fully understand? For example, it is widely known that love is affected by environment and upbringing. People might be victim of unhealthy environments that distort their concept of love. It follows that machines learning love might be wrong. Would we allow these machines to teach our children love and expose them to that threat?

We have no answers to many of the questions raised by the speaker about our human understanding of the meaning and origin of love. However, it is important to be aware of the possibility of having machines capable of love in the near future. We should think about the ethical repercussions that might result from having these conscious machines among us. Will they be partners or servants of mankind? It is likely that you will find yourself having to face these questions in your daily life in the near future.