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The Future of Love: Robot Sex and AI Relationships

Technology is experimenting with robot lovers to simulate feelings and evoke strong sexual and emotional reactions in humans. But, are we capable of falling in love with a non-thinking machine able to mimic affection?


June 6th, 2048 — after working out for ten minutes Noah stepped into the hot shower thinking about the upcoming encounter. He wanted to make a good impression and appear sexy to her. He buttoned-up his shirt under a military green fitted jacket and sprayed on some of his favorite woody-smoky cologne — hoping the smell and the mischievous look would entice the new lover. Noah has been in touch with her for the past month, but it was going to be the first time he would actually see her in person. He cleaned up his place, lit up some red scented candles, set the table with some exotic cheeses and French wine, and quickly sat down anxiously. He couldn’t wait to run his fingers through her hair, feel her soft lips and explore her whole voluptuous body in its entirety.

Anabelle is a quiet, reserved, well-mannered young gal, she is going through a pin-up phase. Wears exclusively bright red lipstick and is obsessed with high heels and black-and-white polka dot dresses, like the one she is wearing tonight. This time over a white silk blouse and a long transparent latex trench coat. She and Noah have a lot of things in common. They’re obsessed with cult films. Their favorite writer is Virginia Woolf. And Paris is their romantic gateway city of preference.

When they finally met, the sparks flew. They had a lovely dinner; were both aroused the whole time; finishing each other’s sentences and stroking soothingly their bodies with a certain intensity. She was perfect. She was everything he expected to be and all he ever wanted in a woman. He was already in love. Anabelle had no choice but to comply to his needs. After $20k and lots of personal tests, she was, in fact, a meticulously tailored version made exclusively to satisfy his desires. Annabelle is not human, she’s a robot. Everything is real about her though. The emotional connection. The sexual attraction. Her own thoughts. The programming inside her runs like clockwork, everything, except for, a bumping natural heartbeat.

“There are a lot of people out there, for one reason or another, who have difficulty forming traditional relationships with other people. It’s really all about giving those people some level of companionship — or the illusion of companionship.” — Matt McMullen

The dystopian scenario described above — worthy of an AI romantic futuristic robot-romance novel — seems distant, unrealistic, and very artificial. But the truth is, fantastic landscapes like these, may be more current and closer to reality than one would think, especially with the advents of progress in new technology and the current epidemic of loneliness our current society faces.

In a modern world where we interact more online than offline, it is not absurd to imagine a future where AI and Robot technology companies will propose themselves as the architects of our next intimacy chapter. Nowadays, young people are even more likely to sext and engage in online forms of sex than actually establish in-person kinds of intimacy.

It’s a topic that has been explored widely in movies like Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2014); Her (2013); and on the sequel of neo-noir film Blade Runner 2049 as well as on TV with similar motives on Black Mirror and Westworld. In Her, Joaquin Phoenix’s character falls in love with a disembodied operating system. In Blade Runner 2049 (2017), we see a bond between K and Joi. A relationship between a mass-produced artificially intelligent hologram programmed to serve the needs of his partner; K controls and completely owns her, she adapts to his mood and personality and practically lives for him. In the award-winning episode of Black Mirror: San Junipero, a new alternative world is created for the elderly and terminally ill in which they can escape and experience an afterlife ecosphere for eternity. In another episode of the series, a young widow creates an AI version of her dead husband through the use of a computer software by collecting all of his online identity data. And in HBO’s Westworld, robots are used for sexual pleasure equally by both men and women.

All of these fantasies, made for entertainment purposes, depicting the eccentric world of future AI-robot romance and love, fit the science fiction box perfectly. These film realities don’t seem so far-fetched particularly since the evolution of technology in the field. In fact, we’re witnessing a revolution — growing at a staggering rate — in the robotics industry towards the creation of artificial substitutes of love and sex. But can technology change the way we approach sex and relationships? And what will be the consequences of its use in our society?

For instance, Vinclu, a Japanese company created back in December the Gatebox, a cylindrical box with a holographic assistant living in it called Azuma Hikari. An attempt to the Amazon Echo just with the intention of being more of an ‘intimate’ partner to the big segment of single Japanese men obsessed with the Anime subculture, extremely horny and with high cravings for love. RealDoll is also another product designed and customized for its users. The lifelike sexual robots are made by Abyss Creations in San Marcos, California. The doll comes in various versions and features “ultra-realistic labia” along with silicone skin and stainless-steel joints. But the life-size silicon mannequin is nothing compared to the latest push of the company, the RealBotix a version of the Realdoll integrated with AI engines called Harmony.

The Sexbot has the ability to think and learn what its owner wants. According to its creator Matt McMullen the doll is “a substitute partner(…) its purpose is, to create an illusion, or alternative to reality. These RealDolls will have the ability to listen, remember and talk naturally, like a living person” he said.

All these substitute technological ventures aimed to engage us in compelling, affective and sexual relations are ground-breaking and striking. Yet, it raises a lot of questions of what these new ways of experiencing love would take away from our humanity and how these interactions will affect genuine sex and love and take over our perceptions and emotions in the long run.

David Levy author of “Love and Sex with Robots” argues in his provoking book that “Love with robots will be as normal as love with other humans”; he also writes that machines and artificial intelligence will be the answer to people’s problems of intimacy. Levy writes that there is “a huge demand from people who have a void in their lives because they have no one to love, and no one who loves them. The world will be a much happier place because all those people who are now miserable will suddenly have someone. I think that will be a terrific service to mankind.”

Dr. Laura Berman Professor at Northwestern University, spoke recently with the WSJ about the benefits and advantages of humanoids’ future uses. “There’s a whole population of people who are socially, emotionally, or physically isolated where technology has been such a godsend to them because they’re figured it out a way to create a social support system for themselves.” she said.

In addition, a study by Stanford University suggests that people may experience feelings of intimacy towards technology because “our brains aren’t necessarily hardwired for life in the 21st century”. Therefore, perhaps, the speed at which relationships with robots might becoming a reality. But, are we so obsessed with perfection that we are heading towards a future world where perfect robotic love will prevail instead of the real thing? And will we be capable of falling in love with non-thinking androids programmed to love us back regardless?

For example, in the book “Close Engagements with Artificial Companions: Key Social, Psychological, Ethical and Design Issues” the authors suggest that there are lot of complex problems technology companies will have to solve in order to manufacture a love robot. “The machine must be able to detect the signals of its users related to emotions, synthesize emotional reactions and signals of its own, and be able to plan and carry out emotional reasoning.”

Robotic and AI love begs a lot of morally and ethically questions, to a large extent in terms of love. Love is probably one of the strongest human emotions we get to experience. It’s a complex and a deep universal affection extremely hard to duplicate through computing programming into simulation devices. Love is different for everyone too, and it has a wide range of motivations and meanings besides sexual intimacy.

“Love is more than behavior. It is important to design robots so they act in predictably human ways but this should not be used to fool people into ascribing more feelings to the machine than they should. Love is a powerful emotion and we are easily manipulated by it.” — John P. Sullins

Bonnie Nardi, a professor at the Department of Informatics at the University of California Irvine, told The Verge that nowadays most people don’t believe they could fall in love with their computer. “They do, however, wish that love could be so simple” she continued. “So programmable. So attainable. Computing machines beguile us because we have the dominion to program them” she said.

So far, it seems like it would take several decades in order to develop a humanoid companion able to sustain complex emotional illusions — intelligence, self-awareness, and consciousness — believable enough for us humans to be convinced that it has a mind and a life of its own. And as John P. Sullings suggests on his paper “Robots, Love, and Sex: The Ethics of Building a Love Machine” “we seem to be a long way from the sensitive and caring robotic lover imagined by proponents of this technology.”

Technology has the incredible capability of not only changing our habits and the way we live and communicate to the world but also has its negative-dark side. Sure, for some individuals — the elderly, the socially challenged, etc. — AI relationships and robot romance might be the only chance they could have to find a profound bond or a way to satisfy their sexual needs, all of that is valid. Robots also might be a great asset to our society and contribute to the service of human companionship and care.

In addition, a robot could revitalize the sexual and love needs and demands of existing couples. As Neil McArthur writes on Robot Sex: Social and Ethical Implications “Robotic partners could help to redress these imbalances by providing third-party outlets that are less destructive of the human-to-human relationship because they might be less likely to be perceived as rivals.”

Yet, wouldn’t these types of inventions grows us apart? Put us in a bubble? How far will these commercially driven companies go to manipulate the public to foist on us these androids? Will this become a new way of social control? And, will these experiences alienate us from real encounters and meaningful relationships, instead of fabricated and simulated ones?

Thus far, it seems like only time will tell. For now, only science fiction can speculate about the future and tell us meaningful things about the present before robot lovers cross the uncanny valley.

This article is the first part of a series on issues about the future. Read below the second part:

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