When it comes to Valentine’s Day, I care only about the chocolate; the dark, expensive kind. Everything else feels too rehearsed, too commercialized. Romance should be like exercise, practiced regularly and certainly more than once a year. What’s more, I believe that spontaneous expressions of love, unexpected and free of the calendar, tend to be the best kind.
So when I read that Cupid is getting a helping hand from an unlikely place, I had to pause to wonder if, sometime in the not so distant future, we might be addressing V-Day cards to androids instead of flesh and blood mates. The mere thought sent shivers up my spine — and the goosebumps had nothing to do with lust.
Some say that humans and robots are on the verge of getting romantically involved — or at the very least having sex with each other. And this prediction isn’t coming from the lunatic fringes of tech, either. Sure, sure, the concept is not new. Hollywood, as well as sci-fi literature, has taken it for a ride several times, but that’s all it was for a while: fantasy. Now, however, the make-believe has turned into a very real possibility.
Two ethicists have published a report, “Our Sexual Future with Robots,” that looks into the future of the robot sex industry. Sex dolls, researcher Aimee van Wynsberghe told an interviewer, are the precursors of robot lovers, as robotics begin to add “functionalities” to these silicon doll creations. Put plainly, this means the male doll could go from a flaccid to an erect penis and the female doll could simulate an orgasm. It may also be only a matter of years before artificial intelligence will use facial and voice recognition as well as algorithms that detect emotion to make an encounter more … well, more emotionally satisfying.
Weird? Yes. Creepy? Absolutely. Yet the march toward outsourcing love, compassion, and trust isn’t stopping. Hiroshi Ishiguro builds “beautiful, realistic, uncannily convincing human replicas” that he uses to study person-to-person interaction. According to Wired magazine, the Japanese scientist is a pioneer in a new field of research called human-robot interaction, or HRI. He and his team are using androids to find out if and when and why we might feel affection for a machine.
If you think this research laughable, consider Star Wars’ R2-D2 and C-3PO. Now do you see what I mean?
The next step appears inevitable. At a 2016 conference called “Love and Sex with Robots” in London, David Levy predicted that marriage between sinew and metal would be legal by 2050. Levy, author of “Love and Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships,” wasn’t the only one touting this possibility. Adrian Cheok, a professor at City University London and director of the Mixed Reality Lab in Singapore, even compared the evolution, and potential acceptance by society, of such a relationship to gay marriage, once thought as improbable.
Still … still. Try as I might, I can’t get my mind around the idea of a romantic relationship with a robot; a bond that involves true give-and-take with all its accompanying hairpin turns and straightaways. Maybe I’m more of a sap than I thought, but I think that what we humans ultimately seek goes beyond the mechanics of sex. Much of our life is devoted to a search for connection and intimacy, for that hard-to-describe sense that we matter, and matter a lot, to another person.
While an android might help with isolation, while it may be encoded to say the right words and apply the appropriate caresses, it seems improbable that it will replicate what defines us as human: our struggles and triumphs, our experiences. It is those highs and lows that, braided together over time, turn us empathetic, make us lovable and appalling, charming and annoying, perfect in our imperfections.
Will an android achieve this? Can a developer write such a program?
I wouldn’t bet a box of Valentine’s chocolates on that.