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Love and Sex with Robots (part 2)

July 7, 2009

In chapter 4, Levy does address the issue I left off with in the last post, the fact that much of our emotional bonding comes from the transitory nature of life.  But the idea that we would build robots to die, let them “be killed in automobile accidents” or “suffer from the same diseases” seems absurd.  Of course some people might make the choice not to back up a robotic and/or disembodied AI persona whose characteristics they’d worked hard to build, in order to give the relationship the intensity of experience which you’d have with any mortal creature, but I think most of us would keep a backup in the event of the usual stupid things that happen to pieces of equipment – would I really want to lose my artificial friend because of a faulty piece of wire, electrical surge, software bug or other random event?

Levy gives an exhaustive list of ways in which robots are being made more “human,” from facial expressions to mirroring affect.  Yet as some of the studies cited make clear, it’s the fact that robots are not human that for many people is the appeal.  In several studies, students were more likely to be honest in answering personal questions about drinking or drugs via computer than in person – the knowledge that the computer won’t judge makes the difference. 

Levy assumes that most people won’t want a “Stepford Wife,” but is that true?  He argues both that surprise and imperfection are a requirement in a relationship to keep both parties interested, and yet also suggests that you could criticize a robot’s behavior and it would automatically modify it.

He’s especially off base when discussing marriage, and the idea that people might one day marry robots.  He gives a good deal of attention to the struggle for interracial and gay marriage, and the case that people should be able to express their love through ceremony, but the fact of the matter is that the core argument for human freedom to marry isn’t romantic, but legal – the rights to property, medical visitation and decision-making, access to spousal health benefits, tax status, etc.  Set aside all the religious hoohah about “marriage is about love” and what you have is a legal institution that confers significant legal benefits.  The case for robot marriage would have to be a case for granting a machine human rights – the right to equal decision making powers in a relationship with a human.  I have to believe that a robot/AI trustworthy enough to have its name on a joint checking account is many moons away.

Levy thinks acceptance of robots in our lives as friends and lovers will just happen, as part of the march of progress.  In “our” circles, yes, but out there in Redneckistan, where people still yell at foreigners as if their English comprehension is increased by the volume with which it’s spoken, where the broken English of Sarah Palin is actually seen as a positive sign of her “good heart,” so full it can’t be expressed in words, not so much.  Until free college education is guaranteed for all citizens, there will always be an undereducated underclass that will fear and resist social change, especially changes in “morality,” not only for themselves but for others.  And the violence they do to humans they despise, mitigated in frequency only by the legal penalties, would no doubt be expressed tenfold on mere machines.

There are some other human angles that Levy hasn’t yet addressed by the end of part 1 (love).  If you can build a lover to spec, it’s hard to imagine that you would treat it the same as a person.  Malleability breeds contempt; who can respect someone who can be pushed around and made to change their looks, their speech, their ways so easily?  And coding some level of “spitfire” pushback into a machine would probably fail the user acceptance test – what is interesting and exciting in a person, a level of defiance and conflict in the relationship, seems silly in a machine when, unlike a person, every shrew can be tamed at the push of a button. 

There are also social imperatives around human relationships, the pressure from friends, family, religious and legal institutions to “stick it out” when the going gets tough.  There’s no reason to stick out a relationship with a broken machine – you repair it, or replace it. 

And what about jealousy?  There are certain atavistic responses that have yet to be eliminated from our own code.  Imagine that you have a robot who is everything on your checklist of desires, and then you see the identical robot in a bar, making out with another person.  It’s not your robot cheating on you, but still.  How does that make you feel, being reminded that your “relationship” isn’t unique?

We love animals, and we love people, and yet the relationships are different.  When realistic robots come to pass, and they will, our relationships will be different as well – arguably, some people will treat robots as human (the same people who dress up their dogs, no doubt), but for most of us, they will be a new kind of tool – a game, a toy, a hobby, a pleasure satisfier.  They will be, to quote myself, “less than a person and more than a dog.”

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