The modern age of telecommunications has already made it possible to fall in love without ever having met face to face, Levy adds. “So many people nowadays are developing strong emotional attachments across the Internet, even agreeing to marry, that I think it doesn’t matter what’s on the other end of the line,” he says. “It just matters what you experience and perceive.”
Based on what researchers know about how humans fall in love, human-robot connections may not be all that surprising. Rutgers University biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, renowned for her studies on romantic love, suggests that love seems dependent on three key components: sex, romance and deep attachments. These components, she remarks, “can be triggered by all kinds of things. One can trigger the sex drive just by reading a book or seeing a movie—it doesn’t have to be triggered by a human being. You can feel a deep attachment to your land, your house, an idea, a desk, alcohol or whatever, so it seems logical that you can feel deeply attached to a robot. And when it comes to romantic love, you can fall madly in love with someone who doesn’t know you exist. It shows how much we want to love.”
Still, both Fisher and Levy agree that many if not most humans will continue to love and have sex the old-fashioned way. “But I think there are people who feel a void in their emotional and sex lives for any number of reasons who could benefit from robots,” Levy states. He cites a Massachusetts Institute of Technology student dubbed “Anthony” in M.I.T. psychologist Sherry Turkle’s book The Second Self, which explores human-computer interactions. Anthony tried having human girlfriends but preferred relationships with computers. Levy says that he dedicated his book “to ‘Anthony’ and all the other ‘Anthonys’ before and since of both sexes, to all those who feel lost and hopeless without relationships, to let them know there will come a time when they can form relationships with robots.”
Whether those bonds are emotionally healthy, however, is debatable. As Turkle puts it: “If you are lonely but afraid of intimacy, relationships with machines can enable you to be a loner yet never alone, give you the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. There is nothing to celebrate here. To me, the seductiveness of relationships with robots speaks to what we are not getting from people.”
Instead of throwing robots at social problems, Turkle feels humans should do the job. “What people like Anthony need are experiences that will increase their repertoire for dealing with the complexity and challenges of relationships with people,” she explains. Levy contends that there are not going to be enough people to handle social concerns such as loneliness or care for the elderly, but Turkle dismisses the idea: “If we paid people to take care of the elderly in the way we invested in other things, this wouldn’t be an issue.”
Both Fisher and Turkle find the idea of legal human-robot marriages ridiculous. But Levy counters that “if you went back 100 years, if you proposed the idea that men would be marrying men, you’d be locked up in the loony bin. And it was only in the second half of the 20th century that you had the U.S. federal government repealing laws in about 12 states that said marriage across racial boundaries was illegal. That’s how much the nature of marriage has changed.”
As to what Levy’s wife thinks, he laughs: “She was totally skeptical of the idea that humans would fall in love with robots. She’s still fairly skeptical.” A reasonable reaction—then again, a Stepford wife with contrariness programmed into her would say that, too.
This article was originally published with the title Not Tonight, Dear, I Have to Reboot.