Fancy a robot as a spouse? Artificial intelligence, that marvel of software, is expected to revolutionize affairs of the human heart. But would algorithmic love still be love?
Marriages are made in heaven, we were once told. But heaven might be displaced by technology within a few decades. Credit for this disruption would go to artificial intelligence (AI), according to those who have gazed into crystal balls (of silicon, naturally), and spied weddings between humans and robots in the not-so-distant future. Among them is Maciej Musiał, a philosopher from Poland’s Adam Mickiewicz University, who has been studying bonds that we develop with machines. Virtual reality, in his view, is no longer an oxymoron, and he presents the chit-chat we do with online assistants, such as Siri and Alexa, as evidence of not just a great blurring, but also of our capacity for emotional ties with e-individuals. Of course, Spike Jonze’s 2013 film, Her, has already been there and done that—its hero falls for an AI “her”. What’s new are corporeal versions, or “sexbots”, that promise physical intimacy as well. Many believe we’re only a few upgrades away from the whole spousal package—pillow talk, toilet-seat tiffs, and all. Designer babies, engineered with DNA samples, are already being talked about. Will humanoid infants be next? What’s going on? Is human evolution about to get warped by this brave new world?
Robots can be programmed for anything nowadays, say AI gurus. Even emotions. Old software could execute tasks based on instructions, but machines are now equipped to observe patterns of human actions and responses, and form algorithms to mimic these to act just as a real person would. Meanwhile, research has shown that humans are predisposed to bond well with others who have similar personalities, ideologies, habits, etc., and there exist gigabytes of research data on marital success that could easily be encoded into a humanoid spouse for compatibility. This lets technologists simulate characteristics that could arouse amorous feelings among us non-bots, as claimed. By 2050, AI expert David Levy predicts, the US will even legalize human-robot marriages under public pressure. Such will be the concept’s appeal.
Perhaps it’s true that many of us secretly yearn for clones or slaves as partners, which is probably what pattern-recognition software will end up offering us, though such terms may attract frowns in an AI-endorsed polite society. Maybe ethical misgivings over a moulded-to-order husband or wife will lose out to its very convenience—a catch-all justification for most new-fangled things—once it begins to wow people. Voices like that of Kathleen Richardson, who has warned us of the sexism and bigotry sexbots could unleash, may begin to sound increasingly fuddy-duddy as consumer satisfaction surveys hail this betrothal breakthrough as exactly what the market wanted. With an actual object for a spouse, objectifying others could begin to seem like a natural thing to do. Yes, all this could happen. But it hasn’t yet. This is because bot partners are still a work-in-progress, we hear. It ought to be because humankind has grave doubts about such “progress”. Whatever the state of play, is it not time for real futurists to take centre stage? People who wrap their minds around where digital advances are taking us, that is, and pose the questions that AI-agog techies seem to overlook. If one falls in love with someone who has no real agency of his or her own, for example, would it still be love?