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Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, technology, health care, and philosophy

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Could we fall in love with robots?

Rich Wordsworth
Originally published 6 DEC 21

Here is an excerpt:

“So what are people’s expectations? They’re being fed a very particular idea of how [robot companions] should look. But when you start saying to people, ‘They can look like anything,’ then the imagination really opens up.”

Perhaps designing companion robots that deliberately don’t emulate human beings is the answer to that common sci-fi question of whether or not a relationship with a robot can ever be reciprocal. A robot with a Kindle for a head isn’t likely to hoodwink many people at the singles bar. When science fiction shows us robotic lovers, they are overwhelmingly portrayed as human (at least outwardly). This trips something defensive in us: the sense of unease or revulsion we feel when a non-human entity tries to deceive us into thinking that it’s human is such a common phenomenon (thanks largely to CGI in films and video games) that it has its own name: ‘the Uncanny Valley’. Perhaps in the future, the engineering of humanoid robots will progress to the point where we really can’t tell (without a signed waiver and a toolbox) whether a ‘person’ is flesh and blood or wires and circuitry. But in the meantime, maybe the best answer is simply not to bother attempting to emulate humans and explore the outlandish.

“You can form a friendship; you can form a bond,” says Devlin of non-humanlike machines. “That bond is one-way, but if the machine shows you any form of response, then you can project onto that and feel social. We treat machines socially because we are social creatures and it’s almost enough to make us buy into it. Not delusionally, but to suspend our disbelief and feel a connection. People feel connections with their vacuum cleaners: mine’s called Babbage and I watch him scurrying around, I pick him up, I tell him, ‘Don’t go there!’ It’s like having a robot pet – but I’m perfectly aware he’s just a lump of plastic. People talk to their Alexas when they’re lonely and they want to chat. So, yes: you can feel a bond there.

“It’s not the same as a human friendship: it’s a new social category that’s emerging that we haven’t really seen before.”

As for the question of reciprocity, Devlin doesn’t see a barrier there with robots that doesn’t already exist in human relationships.

“You’ll get a lot of people going, ‘Oh, that’s not true friendship; that’s not real.’,” Devlin says, sneeringly. “Well, if it feels real and if you’re happy in it, is that a problem? It’s the same people who say you can’t have true love unless it’s reciprocated, which is the biggest lie I’ve ever heard because there are so many people out there who are falling in love with people they’ve never even met! Fictional people! Film stars! Everybody! Those feelings are very, very valid to someone who’s experiencing them.”

“How are you guys doing here?” The waitress asks with perfect waitress-in-a-movie timing as Twombly and Catherine sit, processing the former’s new relationship with Samantha in silence.

“Fine,” Catherine blurts. “We’re fine. We used to be married but he couldn’t handle me; he wanted to put me on Prozac and now he’s madly in love with his laptop.”

In 2013, Spike Jonze’s script for ‘Her’ won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay (it was nominated for four others including Best Picture). A year later, Alex Garland’s script for ‘Ex Machina’ would be nominated for the same award while arguably presenting the same conclusion: we are a species that loves openly and to a fault.