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See Inside March 2008

Not Tonight, Dear, I Have to Reboot

Is love and marriage with robots an institute you can disparage? Computing pioneer David Levy doesn't think so - he expects people to wed droids by midcentury. Is that a good thing?



Sion Touhig

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At the Museum of Sex in New York City, artificial-intelligence researcher David Levy projected a mock image on a screen of a smiling bride in a wedding dress holding hands with a short robot groom. “Why not marry a robot? Look at this happy couple,” he said to a chuckling crowd.

When Levy was then asked whether anyone who would want to marry a robot was deluded, his face grew serious. “If the alternative is that you are lonely and sad and miserable, is it not better to find a robot that claims to love you and acts like it loves you?” Levy responded. “Does it really matter, if you’re a happier person?” In his 2007 book, Love and Sex with Robots, Levy contends that sex, love and even marriage between humans and robots are coming soon and, perhaps, are even desirable. “I know some people think the idea is totally outlandish,” he says. “But I am totally convinced it’s inevitable.”

The 62-year-old London native has not reached this conclusion on a whim. Levy’s academic love affair with computing began in his last year of university, during the vacuum-tube era. That is when he broadened his horizons beyond his passion for chess. “Back then people wrote chess programs to simulate human thought processes,” he recalls. He later became engrossed in writing programs to carry on intelligent conversations with people, and then he explored the way humans interact with computers, a topic for which he earned his doctorate last year from the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands. (Levy was sidetracked from a Ph.D. when he became an international master at chess, which led him to play around the world and to found several computer and chess organizations and businesses.)

Over the decades, Levy notes, interactions between humans and robots have become increasingly personal. Whereas robots initially found work, say, building cars in a factory, they have now moved into the home in the form of Roomba the robotic vacuum cleaner and digital pets such as Tamagotchis and the Sony Aibo.

And the machines can adopt a decidedly humanoid look: the robot Repliee from Hiroshi Ishiguro, director of Osaka University’s Intelligent Robotics Laboratory, can fool people into believing that it is a real person for about 10 seconds from a few feet away. And “it’s just a matter of time before someone takes parts from a vibrator, puts it into a doll, and maybe adds some basic speech electronics, and then you’ll have a fairly primitive sex robot,” Levy remarks.

Science-fiction fans have witnessed plenty of action between humans and characters portraying artificial life-forms, such as with Data from the Star Trek franchise or the Cylons from the reimagined Battlestar Galactica. And Levy is betting that a lot of people will fall in love with such devices. Programmers can tailor the machines to match a person’s interests or render them somewhat disagreeable to create a desirable level of friction in a relationship. “It’s not that people will fall in love with an algorithm but that people will fall in love with a convincing simulation of a human being, and convincing simulations can have a remarkable effect on people,” he says.

Indeed, a 2007 study from the University of California, San Diego, found that toddlers grew to accept a two-foot-tall humanoid robot named QRIO after it responded to the children who touched it. Eventually the kids considered QRIO as a near equal, even covering it with a blanket and telling it “night night” when its batteries ran out. “People who grow up with all sorts of electronic gizmos will find android robots to be fairly normal as friends, partners, lovers,” Levy speculates. He also cites 2005 research from Stanford University that showed people grew to like and trust computer personalities that cared about their wins and losses in blackjack and were generally supportive, much as they would respond to being cared about by other people.

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