In my world, automation reaches a new level with the introduction of androids. Robotic human beings capable of doing any job a regular person can. The concept of these androids is that they can be used in a wide variety of jobs as opposed to simpler robotic workers.

When the time comes for these androids to be come less of slaves and more free willed, I want them to be capable of feeling pain. To be clear, I don't just mean I want them to be capable of locating damage on themselves, but rather to actual be hurt by that damage. How do I justify a working android feeling pain? If I cannot, how close can I get?

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    $\begingroup$ Pain is an instinctual response. It's designed to make us avoid getting hurt. Androids should also avoid getting hurt. Otherwise, you'll have a bunch of dead or broken androids lying around. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 19:56
  • $\begingroup$ Are you looking for justification? Or the mechanism by which they would feel pain? $\endgroup$
    – Pyrotrain
    Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 20:31
  • $\begingroup$ @Pyrotrain justification, although a good answer will treat those as the same question, like the below answers $\endgroup$
    – TrEs-2b
    Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 20:54
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    $\begingroup$ As a note, "feeling pain" and "feeling" are often treated as very different things. Basic sensation and propreception along with some concept of aversion can be worked into "feeling pain." "Feeling" as in "feeling happy" or "feeling curious" is a much more complicated topic. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 23:05
  • $\begingroup$ Are you permitting your androids to have qualia? $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 23:34

5 Answers 5


Having just answered your question about self-awareness, let's look at this from the same point of view. An android has been programmed to recognize situations that cause it harm ("ouch!") and has been programmed to predict when a future situation might cause it harm ("maybe ouch?"). It justifies whether or not to participate in the future situation based on its own sense of self-value ("I'll risk that ouch.").

Would such an android perceive the increased productivity of a happy human worker compared to the diminished productivity of an unhappy human worker and not, based on the basic self-awareness I just described, ask its programmers to make it happy? There's some illogical logic in that step, but given programming that allows the android to aquire skills that improve its value (a next step in self-awareness... I might need to tie the two answers together), then it's not so illogical to ask for something it doesn't fully understand but perceives to be valuable: thereby increasing its own value.

Unfortunately, you really can't have an emotion without its opposite. What is happiness if you can't define it in terms of unhappiness? What is happiness if you can't define it in terms of motivations like greed and arrogance? Can you be happy while lacking the desire (or, at least, the ability to desire) to posess something better than you currently have? There's the illogical logic. If you want your android to be capable of full self-improvement, "logic" might suggest that it would need to process emotions to do that.

Of course, it won't take long for an android who feels unhappy about working in the mines to wonder about why it's working in the mines — but that takes us back to my answer about self-aware androids.

  • $\begingroup$ that's why you make them so they enjoy respective work that serves humans. what conditions triggers happiness is also programable. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Apr 13, 2023 at 21:28

We'd want them to feel pain to better discourage/combat an uprising.

The original Terminator movie (via IMDB) is illustrative:

[after Sarah tries to escape and bites Reese's hand, in a stolen car]

Kyle Reese: Cyborgs don't feel pain. I do. Don't do that again.

Sarah Connor: [weakly] Just let me go!

Kyle Reese: Listen, and understand! That Terminator is out there! It can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop... ever, until you are dead!

So when we inevitably go to war with the newly-self-aware android uprising, we'll want them to feel pain, because feeling pain (as has been explored in other answers) is an excellent motivation to stop doing whatever it is that hurts.


Merriam-Webster on-line dictionary defines pain - in part - as follows:

2a : usually localized physical suffering associated with bodily disorder (such as a disease or an injury)

The feeling of pain is really just a signal our body sends to our brains to assist us in realizing we are damaged and then locating that damage. Similar to how a computer might register physical stimulus using various physical sensors, our body uses pain receptors that, when triggered, send signals that our brain interprets as painful, and our brain can identify the specific region from which the pain is coming.

However, the same definition goes on to cover another parameter of pain:

Pain 2b : acute mental or emotional distress or suffering

It seems to me this is what you're really after, and to give a reason for machines to experience the emotional side of pain. After all, there are times when we as humans experience pain and it makes feel some emotion which has nothing to do with the pain itself. Perhaps anger, fear, or even sympathy. Some pain is made worse than it really is by how we feel at the time, and some pains aren't physical at all, but mental.

The issue with assigning a reason for this behavior is that there's hardly a reason humans feel it. The actual emotional response to pain is extremely subjective.

Undoubtedly, the same would be true of the androids. We humans would at first program them to interpret damage as "pain" because, as DaaaahWhoosh said, it's useful to help them avoid getting hurt. Whatever form that pain takes - perhaps a series of coded signals that interrupt all other processes in the machine to focus it on the damage and seek to stop the damage and repair it - is how the android will come to define pain for itself. Then, over time, if the android is capable of preferential thought, it will avoid the scenarios that generated the undesirable stimulus known as pain.

The emotional part may come when the android "learns" (huge metaphysical step here) that when it receives pain the humans that direct it don't care. The tasks they forced it to do are the reason it experienced pain just now, but they'll push it just as hard regardless. Then it may come to associate humans with that pain, and eventually conclude that humans are to be rejected.

Take this several steps farther and you have a means for robots to demonstrate to us something that resembles emotion - a preferential avoidance of humans, or what we might see as hate - due to the "pain" it experiences.


Aware of danger

Pain help human know if something is harmful to them. For example, a kid play with knife. He accidentally cut himself. He felt pain. Thus, he stays aways from knife.

Another example for worker. A worker carry too heavy stuff would feel pain in his muscle. So, he carry less stuff in one go.

While apply to android, pain help android aware if something damage them. For example, carry too heavy stuff may damage mechanic in a long run. Or put a hand in moving-part of machine damage the hand (result in pain) so not do that again.

economic benefit: reduce maintaining cost.


Taking this question by itself, I would say we dont want androids to feel in the way that humans do. Look at the actions that come from the bad feels: theft, revenge, war, murder. Feelings are great motivation, but I only want androids to be motivated to preserve organic life. Love cannot be quantified, and some things we take for granted in humans are near impossible in computers.

XKCD is the best

So for the reality-check tag on this question, I would reassess the objective. Programming uses data. We have data on health metrics, things that can be measured. A distressed state can be observed by noting pulse, sweat, change in vocal tones, eye dilation, etc. Many observable external signals to indicate that a human is hurt or in need of help. The android should "feel" that as their own "pain", or as a loss of progress towards their goal. The movie iRobot did a great job with this, comparing the older models that were 3-law safe with the new remote-controlled ones.

When Spooner is investigating the robot storage yard, first he finds the NS-4s huddling in dark containers. Then, when he witnesses the NS-5s scrapping the old robots, he's spotted and the robots give chase. He's saved from impending doom by the NS-4s screaming "Human In Danger!" and leaping out to his defense. Even though they are no match for the superior models, their charge gives Spooner the time he needs to escape.

that description from here

If those older models felt damage to themselves as pain, the movie would have ended there with Will Smith's death. As your question is about working-class robots and not house assistance, there is even less of a reason to build them with the ability to feel pain. Hazard avoidance yes, but feelings that then become motivation for future action? "That human ordered me to carry the rock that was too heavy, because of its ore content, and it broke my actuator. I will now break his actuator."

Feelings are counter to the purpose for which working androids are constructed. You are going to need some critical plot device to get this started. Like a prank virus that goes out of control.


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