I’ve pontificated on robots as tools, slaves and devils. I’ve discussed the possibility of robot sentience. Now it’s time to talk about the real issue: Whether robots will ever become satisfactory replacements for humans… including as companions, and even love interests.
With the recent release of Her, the question of whether humans can fall in love with something that clearly isn’t human has been discussed at length. As I said in my own post, the idea of falling in love with something not human is nothing new, no more than falling in love with someone who is physically different from you is unusual. Today’s news is also full of the idea of non-heterosexual relationships and the sanctioning of same-sex marriages. Clearly the standard heterosexual relationship is no longer the only game in town. Computers and robots simply represent the next object of our potential love interests.
Science fiction media has given us plenty of examples of human-robotic sex over the years. In media like television and movies, it is usually presented in a very (ahem) tongue-in-cheek fashion, as it has been done on Star Trek: The Original Series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Reading between the lines, it has been made clear in the previous examples that sex between a human and a robot is considered a breach of morals, something that humans would not do if they were not desperate. It is sex, but not love.
But just as we tried to determine sentience in the last robot-themed post, finding the dividing line between sex and love can be difficult… and sometimes, utterly pointless. For some, there simply is no dividing line between sex and love; for others, sex and love will never intersect. This doesn’t lessen or strengthen one or the other… it simply is, a fact to be accepted.
There’s little point in discussing whether or not a human could become physically attracted to sex with a robot. Humans use all manner of non-human objects and devices to have sex, effectively allowing their own imaginations to fill in the blanks. As robots become more physically (and, presumably, sexually) sophisticated, it’s not at all out of the question for a human to be able to have sex with a robot and imagine that it is another human.
So, the real question is: Can a human love a robot as much as they could love another human? If we were talking about a mannequin or a dildo, we could say that, in most cases, a human would not love the object as much as they could another person. But robots are on the cusp of sentience. Sentience may allow a robot to learn about a person and accurately discern their emotions; and either return those emotions honestly, or provide a close-enough approximation of them to satisfy humans as to their honesty. (Hey, we fool ourselves into thinking our pets love us in the same way, every day.)
In fact, for all we know, a high-enough level of sentience may result in robots actually developing true emotions of their own… in which case, humans won’t have to fool themselves that robotic emotions are real. But given humans’ uncanny ability to rationalize almost anything into being truth, I’d submit that robots don’t need to develop actual emotions; they only need to be able to approximate them well enough to allow humans to accept them as real.
Let’s face it: For humans, this is not a stretch.
Manufacturers are already selling “sex robots,” expensive limited-response mannequins that are a few levels above the old standard of blow-up dolls. Some researchers postulate that we will have robotic brothels by 2050. And somewhere between the two, we’ll probably see average people bringing robots into their homes to be permanent emotional and sexual companions.
Depending on how fast robot intelligence/sentience develops, we could see petitions and lobbying for human-robot marriages at around the same time as the brothels open.
And won’t the dating world become interesting, when potential lovers and suitors have to compete with robot companions… or be forced to wait until their potential lovers get tired of their robot companions and finally decide to go with the real thing. Human-robot couples may even adopt children, or resort to IVF, surrogates, cloning or other methods of reproduction, and eliminate the need for human-human coupling and sex in order to start families.
(Actually, considering how badly we need to reduce human population on Earth, that might be a good idea…)