Artificial intelligence researchers may have something to learn from the latest trends in autism therapy: theory of mind springs from emotional understanding.
From an article on "FloorTime" therapy, based on the Developmental, Individual-Differences, Relationship-based (DIR) model:
"Psychologists and researchers in autism have coined the term "theory of mind" to describe the ability to understand how other people reason as they do. Greenspan and his associates asked themselves, Why do many autistic people lack theory of mind? And why can't autistic children make the leap into abstraction? From a traditional developmental point of view, there was no reason to assume that autistic children would have trouble conceptualizing abstractions. The pioneering Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget had persuasively argued long ago that abstractions are grasped when a child operates on his environment (he pulls a string, and a bell rings: causality). But Greenspan was convinced that some mechanism must be missing in an autistic baby's mind. What was it? The answer was staring him right in the face. Or, rather, the answer was in all those young faces that simply couldn't look him in the eye. Greenspan and his colleagues made a leap: these children, they suddenly realized, wouldn't understand abstractions until they understood their own emotions.
Already celebrated for his work in developmental psychiatry, Greenspan had, by observing the dysfunction of autistic children, come to a turning point in his understanding of human cognitive development. He understood that everything a child does and thinks as he is developing he does largely because of his emotions. Children apply to the physical world what they have already learned emotionally; they are not, as Piaget thought, introduced to abstractions by the physical world. "The first lesson in causality," Greenspan says, "is not in pulling the string to ring the bell. The first lesson in causality happens months earlier—pulling your mother's heartstrings with a smile in order to receive one back." Furthermore, he says, the earliest concepts of math are nothing but reasoning driven by emotion. "For instance, when a child is learning concepts of quantity, he doesn't understand conceptually, he understands emotionally, in terms of his affective universe. What is 'a lot' to a toddler? It's more than you expect. What is 'a little'? It's less than you want.""Perhaps, too, on the path to Kurzweil's singularity and truly intelligent robots, emotions are at the starting line.
Edit: Here's a video supplement called From Emotion to Comprehension that talks about true understanding of language.
"For a kid that's going through the normal stages of emotional development, apple's not just the name of a fruit that's round, shiny and red -- it's the name of something that's juicy and makes a yummy crunchy sound when you bite into it.
But for a kid who's not been taken through these stages of emotional development, apple's just a label."