Trying to create a machine that experiences pain or colours in the same way that we do might require a radical rethink. Pentti Haikonen, an electrical engineer and philosopher at the University of Illinois in Springfield, believes that we will never create a feeling machine using software. Software is a language, he says, and so requires extra information to be interpreted. If you don't speak English, the words "pain" or "red", for instance, are meaningless. But if you see the colour red, that has meaning no matter what your language.
Most computers and robots created so far run on software. Even if they connect to a physical device, like a microphone, the input has to be translated into strings of 1s and 0s before it can be processed. "Numbers do not feel like anything and do not appear as red," says Haikonen. "That is where everything is lost."
Not so for Haikonen's robot. His machine, called XCR for experimental cognitive robot, stores and manipulates incoming sensory information, not via software, but through physical objects – in this case wires, resistors and diodes. "Red is red, pain is pain without any interpretation," says Haikonen. "They are direct experiences to the brain."