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In the twentieth century there was a great deal of angst about computers becoming our enemies and taking over the world. This was reflected in various movies released throughout that century.
Apprehension about machines becoming our enemies is still a very potent feature of our cultural consciousness. But gradually another theme has begun to emerge in the public discourse. Instead of envisioning a dystopian future where machines are our enemies, many people are starting to experiment with the idea of a utopian future where machines become our lovers.
The Next Step in Evolution?
The prospect of humans developing love relationships with computer-programed robots is being heralded by a number of academics as the natural next step in the evolution of both computers and human beings.
Robots already meet a number of human needs, especially in industry. As technology advances to the point where robots can be designed to act in ways that are virtually indistinguishable from human behaviors, many are wondering why we should object to robots being programmed to meet our emotional, psychological, and sexual needs as well.
Thus, excitement is brewing in the budding field of social robotics that it may one day be possible to produce machines that can facilitate the pleasures of romantic relationships without requiring the effort and mutuality that are needed to sustain a relationship with a real, live human being.
When I first came across the idea of humans "marrying" robots, I thought it was just a gimmick of the sex industry. But then I began to see professional law publications discussing the legal ramifications of machine-people marriages, and I knew I had to take the issue seriously.
For instance, an article on the UK website Family Law Week1 enumerates some of the questions that lawyers will need to wrestle with as people begin to claim the "right" to marry their machines:
As bizarre as these questions seem, there may come a time when they cannot be avoided, given the staggering speed at which the robotics industry is expanding. Japan expects revenue from its robotics industry to approach 70 billion dollars in the next ten years. Although most research is focused on using robots to help with engineering, experiments are also being conducted to see if humanoid robots could self-program themselves to respond and adapt to a person's social needs based on their interactions with that person.
Once social robots become mainstream, it will only be a matter of time before someone seeks to challenge the laws that might preclude people from marrying their robot companions. David Levy, author of the 2008 book Love and Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships, told LiveScience news: "My forecast is that around 2050, the state of Massachusetts will be the first jurisdiction to legalize marriages with robots."2
Marriage Has No Boundaries
Although this may seem like science fiction, Western society already entertains a number of assumptions upon which an argument for machine-human marriage could be built. One such assumption is that marriage has no boundaries. In the debate over same-sex marriage, we have heard repeatedly that there should be no fixed limits as to what marriage can mean. As law professor Andrew Koppelman stated when debating Sherif Girgis at Harvard Law School, "marriage is not essentially anything; it's a historical-cultural formation."3 Similarly, in an article for Slate last year, journalist Jillian Keenan asserted that "the definition of marriage is plastic."4
The recent debates have centered on marriage between two people of the same sex, but there is no reason to suppose that marriage between people and robots couldn't be defended on similar grounds.
Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (2011), tells of an intriguing interchange she had with a reporter from Scientific American. Turkle, who is professor of the social studies of science and technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was asked by the reporter what she thought about marriage with robots. When Turkle expressed reservations about humans marrying their machines, the reporter accused her of being no different from bigots who oppose same-sex marriage. "He accused me of species chauvinism," Turkle related. "Wasn't I withholding from robots their right to 'realness'? Why was I presuming that a relationship with a robot lacked authenticity?"
Humans Are Machines Anyway
People's gut reaction against the idea of marriage between humans and robots is usually based on the simple fact that a robot, no matter how complex and life-like it might be, is still a machine. Machines can never be people, just as people can never be machines.
Or can they? According to a view that has come to dominate much modern philosophy—though it has roots in the Enlightenment period—human beings are essentially no different from machines, since everything in the universe (including mankind) has an imminent cause that is ultimately reducible to mechanical forces.
If it is true that all entities and processes are ultimately reducible to matter, then the distinction between human beings and robots is one of degree, not of essence. This is exactly what Levy argues in Love and Sex With Robots, the seminal defense of human-robot "marriage." In the book, Levy quotes the French cultural theorist Paul Virilio, who asserted that "the basic distinction between man and machine no longer applies. Both biological research and computer technology question the absolute difference between living machine and dead matter."5
A horror of metaphysics, together with the attendant desire to expunge all extra-physical categories from our ethical discourse, has led Levy into a curious line of argument. He points out that because it is socially acceptable to marry someone with artificial limbs and organs, it should also be socially acceptable to marry a robot. The line of reasoning goes like this: If you lost an arm in an accident and had to have it replaced with a mechanical arm, should you be prevented by law from getting married? Of course not. But what if you were in a really bad accident and needed two mechanical arms plus a mechanical leg to replace lost limbs—should you then be prevented from getting legally married? Again, no. Well, then, if it is okay to marry someone whose body is 20 percent mechanical, then why not someone whose body is 30 percent mechanical, or 40 percent, or even 90? At what point can we say absolutely that a person is no longer a person and has become a robot?
This argument may seem to entail a leap in logic, but only if one begins from the premise that a person is more than his physical body parts. If one argues from a radically materialist mindset, where the idea of the soul, or even of "human nature," plays no part in the discussion, it is hard to argue against the logic of this reasoning. If human beings can be reduced to what they are made of, then they are essentially no different from robots—merely complex collections of physical particulars.
Marriage with a Minimum of Fuss
Sociable robots promise to avoid the messiness of flesh-and-blood relationships through a kind of "customized intimacy." Imagine having a relationship with a humanoid that—perhaps by means of a wireless connection to your brain—knew exactly what you needed and when you needed it, knew just what to say and when to say it, and knew all your sexual desires and how to meet them. In this type of relationship, all your own needs and desires would be met, while the apparent "needs" of your humanoid lover would simply be a projection of your own.
We already have a hint of how such customized intimacy might work, derived from the way Google gives us search results. In 2007 Google imposed on the public something called the personalized search, which gives users the search results it thinks they want to see, based on all the information it has collected about them. As Nicholas Carr observes in his book The Big Switch (2008), "We welcome personalization tools and algorithms because they let us get precisely what we want when we want it, with a minimum of fuss." More recently, Google scientists have begun experimenting with something called "audio-fingerprinting," a technique that would enable Google to eavesdrop on the background sounds in your room, so it could collect even more data about you and compile a more detailed picture of your needs and desires.
As more advances are made in machine learning, it is possible that similar algorithms could be developed to program humanoids (who may perhaps be wirelessly connected to our brains) to know exactly what we want and then instantly provide it. When that happens, will we welcome the machines that give us "precisely what we want when we want it, with a minimum of fuss"? Or will the fact that these machines aren't actually alive make a difference?
Sherry Turkle asked numerous people that question while doing research for her book Alone Together. Her interviews suggest that some people may already possess an emotional and psychological proclivity for forming intimate relationships with machines. Turkle quotes a 64-year-old named Wesley, who reflected on the advantages of robots over real people:
I'd want from the robot a lot of what I want from a woman, but I think the robot would give me more in some ways. With a woman, there are her needs to consider. . . . That's the trouble I get into. If someone loves me, they care about my ups and downs. And that's so much pressure. . . . [With a robot] I could stay in my comfort zone.
Does It Work?
As materialism continues to expel questions of ultimate meaning from our ethical debates, we are increasingly left with a brute pragmatism that can only ask, "Does it work?"
When this pragmatism is applied to robots, the question people will ask is: "Does marriage to a robot deliver the same goods as marriage to a real person?" For many, the answer may not simply be in the affirmative, but many may feel that, as a safe, predictable, and uncomplicated companion, a robot may actually be preferable to a real person.
We're not there yet. The technology is still being developed, and, so far, the humanoid robots that have been released in Japan are still quite clunky and machine-like. But as more advances are made in machine learning, it will not be long before sociable robots begin expressing human-like emotions and needs.
When that day arrives, robots will truly have become our enemies. •
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