Has anyone else enjoyed Love and Sex with Robots?

Has Anyone Else Enjoyed Love and Sex with Robots?

No, I guess I thought not.  It's actually not too bad. But for those of you who are thinking about it, a warning before getting too invested:  you have to get through the boring, mushy stuff before you get to the juicy stuff.  Normal, you say?

Except that once you get to the juicy stuff, it's actually quite… well…predictable, mechanical… more  afternoon-tea than juicy.  You could even find yourself waking up after an inadvertent nap, its pages crumpled over your resting heart beat…

What? Eh? Goodness, NO!! IT'S A BOOK, sicko! Yes, Love and Sex with Robots by David Levy (2008) recently got my attention as I browsed the shelves of a local bookstore. There are many grand claims there about the future possibilities of love and sex with robots, and about love and sex in general. Apparently, there is some very fancy technology just around the corner that will radically transform how we go about those most perennial and consuming of human activities – choosing and bonding with mates. And the transformations will be at lightning speed compared to those that evolution has fashioned over aeons, and in precise, purposeful directions that we humans determine. Want a buxom blond? You've got her. Want two of her? Sure thing.  And for your loyalty, we'll throw in the I-Never-Nag programme for free. And if you fancy trying out something different, you could always pop down to your local robot brothel (but don't forget to tell the blonds so that they don't wait up with your cocoa).

"Imagine," Levy says, "a world in which robots are just like us (almost). A world in which the boundary between our perceptions of robots and our perceptions of our fellow humans has become so blurred that most of us treat robots as though they are mental, social, and moral beings. A world in which the general perception of robot creatures is raised to the level of our perception of biological creatures. When this happens… the effect on society will be enormous. It will be as though hordes of people from a hitherto-unknown and far-off land have emigrated to our shores… [T]heir capacity for serving as our companions, our lovers, and our life partners will in many ways be superior to those of mere mortals. I am convinced that this is how the world will be by the year 2050" (p. 303).

It might be foolish to predict whether such claims will, with hindsight, be considered prescient or fantastical. (I'll be in my early 70s and quite possibly ranting on about the good old days of sex and procreation, and chat-up lines, and "not tonight darling", and romantic dinners that actually got digested.) But the whole idea – and, of course, current reality – of ‘virtual people' gets me thinking. Putting to one side the grander claims, and their potentially troubling implications for humanity (but, of course, please do feel free to discuss/comment these), there are some interesting ways in which the oddness of robots might facilitate investigations of core human cognitive mechanisms that deal with psychological, physical, biological, and social phenomena, and how these mechanisms interact in basic thinking about persons and machines, minds and bodies, life and non-life.

For example, robots are probably quite anomalous creatures for human minds to deal with in both on-the-hoof and more careful, reflective reasoning. They can display many relevant cues to animacy, but are they really alive? They can laugh and smile, but do they really feel happy? They can say "Good Morning, Sir. You're looking dapper today!", but do they really mean it? Of course not, we all say.

But our cognitive mechanisms are easily tripped by minimal cues to animacy and mentality. Of course your robot isn't really a person. Until you get it home, and its learning programmes rapidly generate uncannily ‘spontaneous' behaviours. It appears to show remarkable sensitivities to your moods and tastes, asks you to scratch its back… up a little… left… just there!!, and beats you at a game of Uno, before seducing you into bed with a playful flash of the eyes. By this time, ‘it' has likely become ‘she' or ‘he' and rapidly a happily-ever-after bond develops.

Then, tragically, Dilma (as she is now called) suddenly dies in a spectacular explosion. But that's ok – she's replicable, and her clone will be delivered as soon as the parts arrive.

But is the new girl really Dilma?

What, if anything, is thought to be essential about an individual person has been a difficult subject to study in psychology, and has received very little attention relative to the work on psychological essentialism for categories (social, biological, etc.).  Robots, however, may be our shiny new tool.

Admittedly, we may have a tough time including buxom blond robots in the next big funding application. But there are already excellent opportunities to begin to investigate such issues in a whole new way in virtual environments. The world of Second Life, for example, is a world populated by characters the whole point of which is to be virtual and fantastical, but real enough potentially to socialize with, trade with, and even have sex with. (And if you doubt its perceived reality, see here) Like robots, these are humanly programmed and engineered avatars and their appearances and behaviours, as well as humans' interactions with them can potentially reveal a lot about quite ordinary human cognition (as well as some of its odder varieties). I understand that many university labs already have a presence in SL. (Perhaps some of the members of our Institute know about psychological experiments going on already?)

Furthermore, the study of human-robot interactions and attitudes could potentially shed light on important cross-cultural variations in core cognitive domains.  For example, the different approaches of Westerners and the Japanese to their robots has been widely commented upon. To generalize grossly, Westerners see robots as tools and threats, while the Japanese see them as beings and friends. This ‘fact' has been variously put down to the way in which robots are represented in popular media, to Asian technophilia, and to the respective roles of Judeo-Christian theology and Shintoism in influencing notions about what is and what isn't animate, organic matter. Assuming the differing Japanese and Western approaches to robots are indeed fact, I'm not sure how one might satisfactorily explain them. But I'm wondering if this, along with recent research and observations in the field of cognition and culture, might point toward some deep variability in the ways in which we carve up our biological, psychological, and mechanical worlds, and in the flexibility or rigidity with which we categorize kinds (e.g. as ‘person' or ‘object', ‘living' or ‘inert') and individuals (as Dilma or not Dilma).  Given the facility with which we ascribe agency, mentality, and personality to all kinds of entities in the world (including cars, computers, and plants), why are Westerners so uncomfortable with the idea of robots as persons, friends, spouses, and lovers? And are we really so peculiar? If so, why?

Here end my few disparate, rambling thoughts and queries about love, sex, and other stuff with robots, and about personal identity, the West and the Rest, and (stretching it a little) the future of our species. Maybe they'll hook some interests out there.

I saved the juicy stuff until last, but unfortunately I have run out of time and space…


  • comment-avatar
    Bill Benzon 8 April 2009 (15:54)

    I’m not sure what kind of facts you’re looking for with respect to Japanese robots, but I’ve read enough manga and seen enough anime to believe that, yes, Japanese pop culture treats robots rather differently than Western pop culture. As to why that is so, that’s an interesting question. Frederik Schodt addresses the issue in [i]Inside the Robot Kingdom[/i]. You might be interested in [url=http://www.thevalve.org/go/valve/article/the_robot_as_subaltern_tezukas_mighty_atom/]a recent post[/url] of mine about the most famous of Japanese robots, Astro Boy. I argue that the robots in those stories are grounded in Tezuka’s experience of prejudice and discrimination at the hands of American troops during the post-war occupation. In effect, the robots are proxies for the Japanese while the humans are proxies for the occupying forces. I’ve also written [url=http://www.thevalve.org/go/valve/article/robots_as_subalterns_2_new_type/]a brief follow-up post[/url] where I suggest that these robots allowed Tezuka (and the Japanese) to step outside history and imagine a new world. And, yes, robots are cognitive anomalies (as are computers, as machines which use language). You might want to take a look at Tezuka’s early so-called scifi trilogy to see how he deals with those issues: [i]Lost World, Metropolis, Next World.[/i]

  • comment-avatar
    Bruce Lepper 28 April 2009 (14:34)

    Yes, I enjoyed [i]Love and Sex with Robots[/i]. Its author led the team that won the Loebner Prize for conversational computer software in 1997. The subject is fascinating because according to those who are in the business of programming robots it is almost certainly going to happen – well, humanoid robots that is. Sex robots will be more shocking for humans. Levy, a chess programming specialist, says he watched in awe as Gary Kasparov was “ripped apart” in just one hour in the final game of his fateful match against IBM’s Deep Blue computer in 1997. This was just 30 years after the first “abysmal” chess programs. He continues: “Given that playing chess well is a task that requires much brainpower, I believe that another thirty years from now, give or take a few years, will see strides made in just about every other area of artificial intelligence, including emotion, personality, and all the mental qualities required of a robot that can behave as you and I do … to levels that will exceed those exhibited by the most intelligent, the most capable, the most sensitive, the most loving of humans.” Hans Moravec, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, wrote along the same lines in an article in the 2008 Scientific American Special Report on Robots: “I am convinced that the decades-old dream of a useful, general-purpose autonomous robot will be realized in the not too distant future. By 2010 we will see mobile robots as big as people but with cognitive abilities similar in many respects to those of a lizard. The machines will be capable of carrying out simple chores, such as vacuuming, dusting, delivering packages and taking out the garbage. By 2040, I believe, we will finally achieve the original goal of robotics and a thematic mainstay of science fiction: a freely moving machine with the intellectual capabilities of a human being.” Read his article here: [url]http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=rise-of-the-robots&sc=WR_20090325[/url] As for the sexual aspect, it is already happening on a primitive level with expensive life-size latex dolls for those who can afford them. If a Japanese company can make a living out of latex dolls which have no speech and no autonomous movement it is a sign that the market for sexually programmed, active robots will be, well, significant to say the least. Autonomous robots have been anticipated for more than a century and it won’t shock anyone when they happen. By contrast, the far more delicate subject of sex robots is more or less taboo in most societies. However, new solutions can furnish ways to bypass taboos, as demonstrated by the enormous universal interest in – and catering for – sexual activity on the web. Some of the most interesting parts of Levy’s book deal with the history of human social laws about sexual behavior. He notes that practices like sex outside marriage, masturbation, homosexuality and oral sex, that were for centuries treated seriously – often as seriously as murder – in the west are now widely regarded as normal. Some of the most dramatic changes have taken only decades rather than centuries, and he thinks that, as with change in many technological fields, the rates of social change are themselves increasing. For me the fascination of robotics is that it is an unstoppable phenomena of unstoppable cultural evolution, just as the internet currently is. We pride ourselves on our technological achievements because we have the impression that collectively we control and guide them, when in fact we have no idea where we are going. Loebner, the American roll-up dance floor manufacturer who established the prize mentioned in the first paragraph is a perfect example of this kind of anthrocentrism when he says: “Since I was the first person to create and fund this contest, I may turn out to be a precipitating factor. Ultimately, if we’re capable of creating a computer that is sentient, then from the point of view of that computer, humans will be gods. I like to think of intelligent machines going out across the universe with this semi-mythic concept of human demigods.” Ah, ah, adorable humanity.. Even robots will love us. I can’t help thinking that Moravec is closer to reality. His guess is, on the contrary, that robots will supplant us, then recreate us as a kind of historical exhibit for their museum. By taking as an example the sudden, unexpected, unplanned and mostly uncontrolled evolution of the omnipresent world wide web it is easy to show that the idea of cultural “progress” is wishful thinking. The web is a typical human cultural accident, based on a small program written by Tim Berners-Lee in response to an annoying incapacity to easily exchange electronic data. This is from his website: [i]Q: What made you think of the WWW? TBL: Well, I found it frustrating that in those days, there was different information on different computers, but you had to log on to different computers to get at it.[/i] The result of this relatively minor frustration, allied to the supporting technology that had already been invented for other purposes, is a new environmental niche and major changes to the world-wide social fabric, down to such basic matters as where people live, how they work, where they obtain information, and with whom they exchange information. Just adding the human trait of opportunism to Berners-Lee’s efficient little program resulted, almost in the blink of an historical eye, the current world wide web and all its consequences, most of which, no doubt, are yet to come. And in the wake of the web, what earthquakes will come from the next obscure opportunity-opening invention? Nobody knows. So although we can foresee the imminent arrival of androids and gynoids, we cannot foretell in which directions human opportunism will develop them. There are just too many variables. Robots could be the end of the line for humans, or they could be the beginning of a new era of holidays-for-all. Only one thing is sure: robots are on their way, fast, and no human can stop their evolution. A universal draconian dictatorship outlawing robot research might work for a while, but history shows that such obstacles don’t last long. Moravec accepts that cultural evolution (even though he mistakenly calls it [i]progress[/i]) goes its own way. In an interview with former [i]Wired[/i] journalist Charles Platt he says “People such as myself may have a little bit of influence, but we’re like mosquitoes pushing at a rolling boulder. Progress is inflicted on people in the same way that natural evolution is inflicted on people. It really is evolution; it’s the selection and growth of information, transmitted from one generation to the next.” http://www.primitivism.com/superhumanism.htm The French anthropologist Andr√© Leroi-Gorhan ([i]Le geste et la parole[/i], 1964) was intrigued by the human cultural propensity to externalize and supercharge human attributes (arm /lever, leg/wheel, eye/telescope, etc.), and that was before brain/internet happened. It surely won’t be long before two more human parts, around which revolve the biggest, most compulsive, human obsession, get the same treatment.