In a living room, a middle-aged man is leaning his head almost poetically against the chest of his seemingly unconcerned partner. He, a human being of flesh and blood. She, an anatomically realistic sex doll. The scene is captured by the American art photographer Elena Dorfman in the photo series Still Lovers, which documents the everyday life of people living with artificial companions.
The idea of falling in love with an artificial partner may, for most people, appear to belong in the realm of science fiction. But considering how involved we already are with our technology, it shouldn’t be difficult to imagine the next logical step in our evolving relationship with it being the practice of seeking romance and friendship from artificial companions. Our smartphones have practically become an extension of us, our virtual assistants have moved in with us, and during the COVID-19 lockdown, our technologies are stepping in to fill the void by cleaning, shopping, and even providing companionship.
It didn’t start with the current pandemic, however. Remember what happened when the Tamagotchi, the virtual pet, launched back in 1996 or when Sony announced AIBO, a robot dog in 1998? Although the Tamagotchi exhibited only very limited intelligence, it provided an emotional appeal to many of its owners, and as a result of its animal-like behaviour, AIBO instilled feelings of love similar to those felt by the owners of real pets. Since then, extensive research has also shown that robotic pets can provide comfort, companionship, and psychological support for humans.
But what about humanlike robots? Is it possible to imagine a future in which AI and robotics companies will promote themselves as the next providers of human intimacy?
When attempting to answer this question, a good place to look for a starting point would be science fiction, a genre known for engaging with the technological and social possibilities outside of our immediate reality. As the dominant genre of story-making about the future, science fiction doesn’t just explore these questions in a passive manner, it actively shapes how we think about them too. As such, science fiction has a profound effect on how we imagine the future, including what falls outside the realm of possibility. The genre is replete with stories of humans falling in love with artificial beings, stretching all the way back to the myth of Pygmalion who carved out his lover in ivory. So, what do modern stories from popular science fiction tell us about the possibilities for human-robot intimacy in the future?
Movies and tv series like Lars and the Real Girl (in which sex dolls made their Hollywood debut), Spike Jonze’s sci-fi drama Her, Ex Machina, Blade Runner 2049, and many others urge us to imagine a future in which human-like artificial partners (in the shape of either sex dolls, robots, lifelike replicas, AI, or virtual computer operating systems) become essential members of everyday life for humans.
Yet, even though all of these stories explore intimacy between humans and non-humans, each fiction is also characterised by a dissolution of these unusual relationships as they become too complicated to sustain. In Lars and the Real Girl, Lars’ sex doll Bianca ultimately gets abandoned and supplanted by the human Margo. A similar ending is found in Her when the relationship between the operating system Samantha and the lonely human protagonist Theodore becomes strained as Samantha evolves too quickly and ends up leaving Theodore to fulfill a greater purpose. Theodore is devastated, but his sorrow is soon displaced by hints of him being ready to (re)connect with humans after all. Then there is the movie Ex Machina in which the programmer Caleb Smith falls in love with Ava, a humanoid robot with artificial intelligence, who ends up manipulating him in order to escape. Lastly, in Blade Runner 2049, Officer K lives with his AI hologram companion Joi until he realises that everything about her loving him is a product of a programmed reaction rather than her own free will.
It is safe to say that a lot of early twenty-first-century popular science fiction represent real human beings as more preferable than their artificial counterparts. But does that need to be the case?
As of today, the AI and robotics industry is one of the fastest-growing sectors of the global economy. At the same time, the public’s interest in sex robots has grown considerably in the last decade. Various models of hyper-realistic sex dolls and robots are currently available on the market, but only a few are capable of undertaking simple conversations and exhibiting basic intelligence. As such, we are still in the early stages of modern sex-tech or development of the human-machine intimacy industry, but it is expected that the integration of existing AI technologies with the emerging generation of humanoid robots will probably make sophisticated and humanlike sex robots a reality by the middle of this century. Physical bodies are, however, not always necessary for intimate relationships to evolve. Advances in gaming technologies, virtual reality, and augmented reality have already made virtual dating so realistic that people have reported falling in love with AIs.
Looking off-screen, there also exists a very real, little-known but passionate community of ordinary people living with and loving artificial partners, whose lived experiences differ from the dominant regime of storytelling about intimacy between humans and their technology.
Last year, the Fondazione Prada art museum in Milan displayed an exhibition of photography named ‘Surrogate. A Love Ideal’. It included more than 40 images, including ones by Elena Dorfman, that document and explore the unconventional relationships between real people and their artificial counterparts, ranging from the humanlike sex doll companions to artificial ‘reborn’ babies and their caregivers.
In an artist statement, Dorfman explains how her ambition was never to judge but to allow the inhabitants of this secret world to share their daily lives with her, and to Artnet she adds that ‘in an age of artificial intelligence, when apps that can instantly deliver a vast array of sexual options and when cosmetic surgery can “perfect” faces and bodies, there is an increasing number of people who choose non-humans as their preferred partners or children. Despite the unsettling reality some of these issues present they also offer fertile ground for contemplation and conversations.’
While outsiders might be disturbed by this glimpse into the domestic life of humans living with artificial companions, these portraits emphasise moments of love rather than sexual deviancy.
What then seems to be confusing to outsiders is the complexity of intimate relationships that unfolds when humans become attached to pieces of technology. Because even though a typical love doll or sex robot is designed for sexual purposes, it is often the emotional ties with the artificial companions that become an important part of the relationship.
The emergence of artificial companionships will not mean the end of human-to-human relationships. Instead, it gives people a chance to understand and experience love, which can be difficult for some with real human beings.
Our stories about the future need to reflect the possibility of such intimate relationships between humans and their artificial counterparts. If they are to do so, they will need to include the lived experiences of today in order to think differently about our possible, plausible, and preferable future intimate relationships with the technologies of tomorrow.
Originally published in Scenario Digest