That is what is asked by the movie “Her”, directed by Spike Jonze. The movie tells of a lonely, soon-to-be-divorced man Theodore (played by Joaquin Phoenix) who finds himself increasingly attracted to his computer’s new operating system (OS), Samantha (voice by Scarlett Johansson). As an artificial intelligent OS, Samantha displays human-like personality, intelligence, and maturity that she uses to not only help Theodore in his daily tasks but also to meet his emotional needs. As they spend increasingly more time together, they soon fall in love and profoundly, even have sex with each other.
So, can we Homo sapiens – biological beings – actually fall in love and even want to have sex with computer-simulated beings or with robots in the same way we would to other humans?
Why the hell not? I can imagine David Levy, book author of “Love+Sex Robots: The evolution of human-robot relationships”, telling us.
“People love people and people love pets,” David Levy argues, “nowadays it is relatively commonplace for people to develop strong emotional attachments to their virtual pets, including robot pets. So why should anyone be surprised if and when people form similarly strong attachments to virtual people, to robot people?”
David Levy goes to great lengths in his book to show that there are ample of evidence that we humans can have strong emotional attachment to non-humans (such as animal pets) and even to computers – and the strength of these human-non human relationships can sometimes even exceed that of human-human relationships.
In the late 1990s, a handheld computer device called Tamagotchi was sold first in Japan and soon became a worldwide hit. Tamagotchi was conceived by a Japanese mother for her children who could not keep real pets at home due to lack of space. So, instead of real pets, Tamagotchi was developed to allow people to have the next best thing: to keep virtual pets.
What is surprising is although Tamagothi’s virtual pet had barely any elements of character or personality, yet the device became popular because Tamagotchi fed into people’s (mostly women’s) desire to nurture and to have that reciprocated.
Tamagotchi’s phenomenon is not an exception. Robotic toys like Furby, My Real Baby, PaPeRo, and Sony’s AIBO dog again show that strong attachments can occur between humans and nonliving objects particularly if the object displays human- or animal-like personalities. AIBO dog, for instance, can wag its tail and simulate feelings of affection and unhappiness of a real dog.
Certain computer games have caused players to have a strong attachment to the game characters. The computer game “Artificial Life”, for instance, allow players to have a virtual girlfriend named Vivienne, a slim and talking brunette, who likes to be taken to movies and bars. She can even be given virtual flowers and chocolates. For a fee (real money), we can even make a real phone call to interact with her. Likewise, the Android game, My Virtual Girlfriend, allows players to choose and customize thousands of virtual girlfriends. The objective is simple: romance the girl until she falls in love with you. Romancing her would involve activities such as taking her to bowling, mini golf, buying her dinner, or even buying her a bikini or lingerie which she would wear for you.
Perhaps the most popular female game character is Lara Croft from the Tomb Raider game series. The Lara Croft character exemplifies that boys and men can have feelings of affection, even of a sexual nature, to her even if they know Lara Croft is one of simulation. Lara Croft is sexy, beautiful, and tough, and she responds to gamers’ commands and decisions during the game play with simulated human emotions, personality, and intelligence.
The more believable and lifelike the characters, the more people would feel comfortable and strongly attached to these simulated characters. The more these characters exhibit social cues: intelligence, individuality, sociability, variability, coherence, and conversation ability, the more compelling these characters are to people – and more so if the simulated characters can recognize people’s emotional state and other social cues and provide an appropriate response.
But even with limited artificial intelligence can cause delusional thinking in even normal people. In the 1960s, Joseph Weizenbaum invented a computer program named ELIZA and found that even with a very limited artificial intelligence, ELIZA can cause people to ascribe human characteristics to the computer program. Via a keyboard and computer screen, human volunteers would interact with ELIZA, and one example of such human-ELIZA interaction is recorded in David Levy’s book:
|User:||Men are all alike.|
|ELIZA:||In what way?|
|User:||They’re always bugging us about something or other.|
|ELIZA:||Can you think of a specific example?|
|User:||Well, my boyfriend made me come here.|
|ELIZA:||Your boyfriend made you come here.|
|User:||He says I’m depressed much of the time.|
|ELIZA:||I’m sorry to hear you are depressed.|
ELIZA’s questions and response are remarkably human-like and interacting with her, especially in short periods, have no wonder caused some human volunteers to believe that they were actually interacting with a real person.
In 2003, MORI (Marketing and Opinion Research Institute) surveyed children and adults in Britain, and they found that 45% of children see computers as a trusted friend and 60% children were extremely fond of computers. For adults, the figures were lower but still significantly large at 33 and 28%, respectively. Surprisingly, 16% adults and 13% children actually talk to their computers. To some adults and children, this survey found, their computers were like their “technological umbilical cord”.
How humans and computers interact have many similarities with each other. Both communicate using words, and both are interactive: able to receive inputs and produce the corresponding outputs based on received stimuli, feedback, or inputs. Moreover, humans tend to relate to computers in the same way as they would to other humans in social situations. For instance, people prefer interacting with computers that have similar personalities or identities as their own.
People also carry over stereotypical views of human gender to their interaction with computers, so a person may behave similarly when interacting with male humans and with computers with a male voice. And in some cases, people disclosed more of their intimate and private details of themselves to computers compared to other people. Computers, as these people deemed, did not judge them and were impartial as compared to other people.
So, if people can form emotional bonds with computers, David Ley argues, it would not require a giant mental leap to accept that people can also have sex with computer-simulated humans or with robots.
But why would people want to have sex with computers or with robots? For several reasons: firstly, for the novelty of the experience; secondly, some people would see robots as a willing lover available wherever needed; thirdly, robots can be a replacement for a lost partner or mate; and fourthly, robots can be a medical aid to psychological recovery process.
Many people, men in particular, can have many acquaintances but very few close friends. Men rarely have a relationship as close or deep as do women to other women. But this is not to say only men would attempt to have sex with robots. Career-minded women, who seek undemanding, private, and safe relationships, may find also find sex with robots appealing.
The possibility of having sex with robots is not shocking when we consider that people have already been using various objects as sex aids. Even as early as the 17th century in Japan, artificial vulva, made from tortoise shell lined inside with velvet, was used to relieve men’s sexual needs. And in the 19th century, sex dolls became popular especially among sailors in Europe. Today sex aids such as blowup and silicone dolls, vibrators, dildos, and Symbian sex machine (or stallion) have been developed and used widely, albeit discreetly.
Computers have even been used as sex aids such as those invented by Howard Rheingold in 1991 and Dominic Choy in 2000. Teledildonics and haptic interface technologies have allowed virtual touches or sex between two or more people to occur over the internet. Sex devices, or so-called sex surrogates, can be controlled via the internet, so that one partner can control the other partner’s sex toy.
Sex websites such as Virtual Sex Machines allow their subscribers to have virtual sex with porn actors using a suction device placed on the subscribers’ penises. The recorded movements and touches of the porn actors are then transmitted over the web into these suction devices that would then translate these inputs into physical sucking sensations, simulating the desired sexual act. FriXion Revolution likewise offers the necessary peripherals and internet setup that allow their subscribers to experience the virtual sensations of holding hands, kissing, and even full penetrative sex with one or more partners via a social web network.
New Zealand researchers, Yeoman and Mars, from Victoria University of Wellington even proposed that sex with robots is desirable for the sex industry in Amsterdam. By 2050, they predicted, sex with robots in Amsterdam would mitigate a multitude of problems often associated there such as sexually transmitted diseases and human trafficking.
The BBC America TV documentary “Love Me, Love My Doll” highlights several men who see no problems with having sex with their sex dolls. These men say these dolls have increased their quality of life because they each have difficulty forming lasting and deep relationships with women.
One of these men is 40-year-old Davecat. He considers his sex doll, named Sidore, of ten years to be his wife. He has even bought another sex doll, named Elena, to accompany his wife while he is away at work. “…this [being alone and massaging Sidore’s feet] is probably a good gauge when I am happy,” says Davecat in the BBC America documentary, “…that’s the difference between being alone and lonely. I don’t mind being alone at all. However, I cannot stand being lonely…That’s why I have the dolls.”
But the future isn’t just about having sex with computer-simulated humans and with robots. As David Levy defends, these technologies do fill some important human emotional needs to some people. They can provide a relationship to people who have nowhere else to go or turn to, acting as an ideal partner who understands and who is forgiving and does not withdraw if a mistake is done. In short, these computer-simulated humans and robots can provide a safe haven where people can go for comfort, assurance, and safety.
Nonetheless, building a robot that is almost indistinguishable from a human being is a daunting task that requires advanced engineering, computer, and artificial intelligence technologies.
But I am reminded by what Kevin Kelly wrote in his book “What Technology Wants”. Kelly argues that technology is like a living entity that evolves akin to human evolution. We have seen that people are ready to form emotional bonds to non-human beings and to objects. And we have seen that people have used and are willing to use objects as sex aids. So, as robot technology incrementally advances and matures – step-by-step, akin to evolution – it is inevitable that one day human-like robots, both in physical appearance and behavior, would appear. And when that happens, humans would be ready to, well, love them.