Human Relationships Are Doomed, but Maybe Happiness Will Increase

A cute plastic robot with big eyes.

I make the argument that romantic relationships between people will eventually be replaced by relationships between humans and robots. This will result in fundamental societal changes.

Humans Are Lazy and We Want to Live More Comfortable Lives

People are lazy and love to invent solutions to make their lives easier. I can think of numerous examples: the wheel, the assembly line, heavy-duty machinery, micro processors. Every such invention enables fewer people to accomplish more and it allows more people to lead less strenuous lives.

The service industry is built on a similar principle. Instead of every individual person having to perform routine everyday tasks to survive or live comfortably, specialized workers provide services for others making production of said services more efficient, cheaper, and more easily accessible. Again, examples are plentiful: we no longer grow our own food, we go to the dentist instead of pulling out our own teeth, we employ professional teachers to teach our kids instead of schooling them at home. We even pay for other people to play sports so that we can watch instead of (inconveniently) participating ourselves. And in some cases, the service industry provides its benefits in our homes: home cleaning, baby sitting, grocery shopping, and home redecorating can all be bought as services for a fee.

Let’s focus on the home environment. Maybe you can’t afford to hire help in the home? Then appliances can help. Nowadays appliances that were not even invented a hundred years ago are quite common in ordinary peoples’ homes. We don’t consider a dishwasher, washing machine or microwave oven to be ridiculous or extravagant do we? And robot vacuum cleaners or robot lawn mowers are quite good at doing their job at a smaller cost compared to the actual human service.

Humans also Need Companionship

So laziness is a driver in people’s lives but so is the need for companionship. Sure, this “niche” of home automation is still nascent but we have all seen the popular science posts about Japanese care-giving robots, right? Robots that will fetch a beer or just talk to you to keep you company. They come in the form of cuddly little seals¹ that can change their facial expression and coo interactively, or clunky, weird-looking and wheeled plastic servants that will respond to your command and get you that beer. For the elderly population, the promise of robot companionship is envisioned as a possibly viable solution to psychological health issues that can be caused by loneliness².

Of course, there is also a deep rooted need in people to have meaningful romantic relationships. But could a robot replace a human as a romantic companion? Let’s see.

First we have the issue of anthropomorphizing. This is when you attribute human qualities to something that isn’t human. It could be your dog (you probably love your dog). It could be a stuffed animal or the robot seal that you hug and keep close when you are feeling lonely. If robots evolve to a level where they speak and look like humans I would not be surprised if we would anthropomorphize them as well.

Then we have the issue of feelings. Can you really have feelings for something that you intellectually very clearly understand is not a human (or a living animal)? I think this is hard to predict. But I would guess it is possible given the experience we have with pets and stuffed animals and the experiments with simple robot companions. So let’s assume that it is possible and see where it leads us.

And, finally, what about the physical aspect of the romantic relationship? Could a robot pass for (or even surpass) a human? Again, it is hard to predict, but judging from the success of the adult entertainment industry, I would not be surprised if technological advances of humanoid robots reach a level of “similarity” that will easily satisfy our “needs”.

It seems like a robot companion could actually be a proper partner.

But before we go on, let’s examine the concept of the romantic partnership a little more. What do people look for in a romantic partner? Obviously, companionship and friendship and the like. Also, we often look for similarities in age (because it implies similarities in experiences), similar interests (because then we can do things together which also contributes to the companionship), attraction (part of the romance), similar characteristics (like a positive outlook if you have one yourself), and so on. And if we are lucky we find someone perfect, right? Maybe not. Maybe the best we can hope for is someone who is nearly perfect. We realize that the likelihood of finding the perfect partner is pretty low so we learn to “cope” with the imperfect partner by using techniques like compromising. And consequently the “cost” of having to “put up with”/”endure” some aspects of our partner is (hopefully) greatly outweighed by the “benefits” they provide. And this is as good as it gets, and, if we were lucky, it is very very good. But not perfect.

The Intersection of Laziness and the Need for Companionship

When we combine our laziness with our need for companionship, and rely on technology and basic human behavior (like anthropomorphizing) to provide a solution, we arrive at a possible intersection. The robot partner. What would a robot partner be like?

Maybe it does not start as an actual romantic partner; maybe it starts with a domestic robot servant that provides for us in the home. But to make it easier for us to cope with the robot, its creators make it human-like. And with advances in robotics and artificial intelligence, every new generation of robot becomes more human-like. At the beginning it provides the services that we spoke of before: cooking, cleaning and so on. But as we grow used to it, we start to enjoy its company as well. And before we know it, we start to care about it.

Fast forward to a much evolved future generation of robot that is perfectly life-like in every aspect: behavior, apparence, and function. It learns your habits and preferences. It can download knowledge about whatever interests you have. It is autonomous and it can make interesting suggestions. And it exhibits every sign of caring for you. And now you develop actual feelings for it.

But wait! Surely that will never happen? Wait. It will happen. The interesting part is what happens when it happens.

Do I Want a Human Partner or a Robot Partner?

The robot is perfect. It knows about your needs. It always cares about your needs. It is capable of providing for those needs. And since it is perfect you don’t have to put up with those (albeit small) nuisances of a human partner. And you care about it — in fact you love it! And why wouldn’t you?

It will be a process to grow into such a relationship. The robot will learn, sure, but you will have to teach it some things. But this is the same for human companions, they can’t possibly know about your every detail from the start. But the robot won’t complain about learning about you, or listening to you, or providing for you.

But there is more. Any time you like, you can replace the robot for another. Maybe you get bored. Maybe you want to try something new. Changing partners will be easy since there will be no regrets, discussions, arguments, hostility, frustration or sadness. He or she will just leave amicably and the replacement will arrive — with the same memories of your past life together (if that is what you want), the same knowledge about your specific preferences (again, unless you want to start anew). And, after all, this will be a part of your subscription plan, so why wouldn’t you take advantage of it, until you get it just right.

You will prefer the robot to a human.

The Consequences to Society

There will be consequences in a society where relationships are primarily robot-human. Some will be subjectively good and some will be problematic.

  1. Divorces will decrease drastically. For obvious reasons.
  2. What about child bearing? It will probably decrease as an effect of fewer “accidents”. Some would probably argue that this also has consequences for abortion rates and religiously based opinions about the use of contraceptives. But the number of kids born will probably decrease overall. Kids will still be born, for sure, even if the process will be somewhat more “procedural”.
  3. There could be a shift in policies regarding sex workers. Maybe that industry would see a down-turn.
  4. Mental health could improve when many people are less lonely. This leads to less depression, less domestic violence, fewer suicides. And, consequently, a lower cost to society.

And happiness? Will we be happier as a society? Your guess is as good as mine.

I also have some ideas about how robots will evolve and how their self-percieved status will change as they integrate into society. But I will save that for another time.

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Fredrik Espinoza

Fredrik Espinoza

Father of three, technologist, PhD in computer science. Interested in politics, crypto, and human behavior.