Can you fall in love with a robot?
It’s a question that has been widely explored by sci-fi novelists and filmmakers for decades.
Her and Ex Machina – both Oscar nominated – revolve around protagonists developing deep, romantic feelings for some form of artificial intelligence.
Our fascination with this concept isn’t difficult to unpick: a romantic relationship with a machine takes away all of the messiness and unpleasantness of human emotion and leaves you with something that is much simpler and easier to comprehend, if relatively sterile.
It feels like a fantasy because, for the moment at least, it remains one.
But just how likely is it that we will willingly abandon our innate need for human touch and interaction and what will the implications be for humanity if we do?
Relationship coach and neuroscientist Bobbi Banks thinks robotic partners could definitely be on the cards in the not too distant future.
‘Forming romantic and sexual relationships with robots will be widespread by 2050,’ Bobbi tells Metro.co.uk.
‘The way we experience love and connection today is changing.
‘Technology is so intertwined in our day-to-day lives that I have already seen a significant rise in the number of long-distance and online relationships.
‘People report feeling close and emotionally connected to their romantic partner but also say that not being able to see each other creates feelings of jealousy and uncertainty of the stability of the relationship.’
Bobbi thinks that that jealousy could be removed by having a robotic partner.
‘It would provide the affection, company and love without the fear of rejection, being cheated on, or the heartbreak after a breakup,’ she says.
‘It would give people full control over their love life and it would allow them to create the “perfect partner” but it would do more bad than good.
‘Having your needs met on demand and always getting your way could lead to higher levels of life dissatisfaction and depression due to not being able to cope with life’s obstacles as well as you would have been able to initially.
‘What makes a relationship worth having is the human connection and learning to love each other despite our faults. We need to embrace the struggles in life and learn from the pain as that’s what makes us stronger and teaches us to be better.’
Relationships expert Sarah Louise Ryan has noticed a worrying trend in people pulling away from human connections as our reliance on the digital increases.
‘The number of people choosing robotic partners will increase unless we address the problems that online dating and technology are causing for our mental health,’ says Sarah.
‘I fear that humans are becoming more disposable than ever to each other romantically; ghosting each other, disappearing when the going gets tough or giving up because of online dating burnout.
‘Human beings are losing the art of dealing with conflict in real life and the ability to deal with different tricky scenarios with real human beings, romantic or not.’
Having witnessed the revolution of online dating, Sarah is worried about how far we are willing to take our romantic lives into the realms of the digital.
‘Virtual relationships have been a huge concern to me for a long time now,’ says Sarah.
‘I have first-hand experience of speaking to singles who have suffered rejection online and inevitably feel lonely because nothing can ever replace human touch, connection or the feel-good factor that comes from communicating with someone who has the same wants, needs and interests as you in a partnership.
‘I can’t speak for what will exist by 2050 but right now we cannot experience the magic of building a family with any virtual relationship or robotic romance.
‘those who spend their time online trying to fill the romantic void are losing the art of flirtation and missing real opportunities to fall in love.’
But the storylines from Hollywood come from somewhere.
So where are they coming from?
Studies have already shown that humans can empathise with robotic forms in a similar way to humans.
How and why we fall in love with other humans is a difficult thing to define but science does have an answer. It relates to our immune system, the release of dopamine along with other chemicals and a number of other factors rigorously studied.
If love has an answer, why can’t it be replicated with AI?
Psychologist Robert Sternberg devised the triangular theory of love, where intimacy, passion and commitment are the three points of the triangle of a loving relationship.
If commitment is already assured and passion can be programmed, how far away is an AI than can offer real intimacy?
‘If love boiled down to certain behavioural patterns, we could hire an actor to “go through the motions”,’ Sven Nyholm and Lily Frank wrote in From Sex Robots to Love Robots: Is Mutual Love With A Robot Possible?
‘But, by common conceptions, this would not be real love, however talented the actor might be. What goes on “on the inside” matters greatly to whether mutual love is achieved or not.’
The interesting point here is about ‘going through the motions’.
We are increasingly alone and the modern epidemic of loneliness is actually killing us.
Loneliness is associated with a 50% increase in mortality from any cause. This makes it comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes every day and more dangerous than obesity.
To appease loneliness, 17% of people between the age of 20 and 35 have spoken to technology to distract themselves, according to a survey.
Nearly 30% of UK relationships are sexless and growing numbers are staying in unhappy marriages.
So maybe it isn’t unfeasible to think that the communication, understanding and empathy on offer from even simplistic AI could provide something just as meaningful as these human relationships.
It’s a common claim that our growing reliance on technology is one of the root causes of our collective loneliness but maybe it could also be the antidote.
But could falling in love with an AI ever be considered ‘real’ love?
The AI that already exists, narrow AI, is mainly concerned with solving specific problems – limited in what it can do and has a relatively narrow scope of capabilities.
General AI (GAI) is the next step in artificial intelligence and moves it into the grey area of when ‘artificial’ becomes seen as ‘real’.
This AI has a general intelligence not just around one specific issue and can be combined with focused algorithms that can perform certain tasks as well as or better than humans.
These machines would have the capacity to be more loving, more attentive, more empathetic than any human partner.
It doesn’t exist yet and scientists aren’t even sure how to get there but if/when GAI arrives, it could open up real possibilities for meaningful, emotional relationships with machines.
For GAI, emotion won’t be an afterthought. Experts have suggested that for truly intelligent machinery to develop, emotion will have to be not just included but fully integrated into the mechanics of the device.
‘Emotion needs to be merged with all aspects of the architecture: cognitive-emotional integration should be a key design principle,’ Dr Luiz Pessoa, of the University of Maryland explained in his report.
Before that, sexual intimacy with machines is already happening.
There is a growing demand for ‘sexbots’ and some men have taken their relationship with their bot beyond the physical, moved them in to the family home, introduced them to their children.
Add powerful, intuitive AI to the equation and the leap to robotic love doesn’t seem all that far-fetched.
Our smartphones already know our favourite music, shows we like to watch, who all our friends and family are, our career aspirations – aren’t they the building blocks for a successful, loving relationship?
Michael Blakely, founder of dating app Clikd, doesn’t think it will come to that. He thinks technology will impact the future of relationships in a slightly different way.
‘Robotic partners will never be the norm,’ he tells Metro.co.uk.
‘People still crave that human, physical connection however more interactions are done online instead of offline.
‘With apps like Boibot, Eviebot and Talking Boyfriend, people can use these platforms to communicate with a human-like avatar to receive empathetic responses that one would expect in a real relationship.
‘Though perhaps you’re not going to take them to your parents’ house for Sunday lunch.’
Using a dating app to meet your partner is already becoming the norm. Around 40% of American couples now meet online, and that number is likely going to keep going up. But by 2050m Michael says these apps will go much further than simply facilitating meetings.
‘AI will help us to optimise compatibility between people, hopefully creating better date success rates,’ he says.
‘People will be using digital technology to optimise their sex lives through recording data, which could monitor things like heart rate. Apps are being introduced now that allow you to control sex toys from any location.
‘Couples will flock to devices like Alexa and Google Home for advice on their relationship where they can be heard without judgement.’
If that’s the case then AI will help romance blossom rather than be the target of someone’s affections.
This is a sentiment that was echoed in a recent report on the future of dating.
The findings, collected by Imperial College Business School and eHarmony, suggest that AI and machine learning will be hugely influential in relationships of the future.
Rather than dating the robots, AI will help us to improve our human relationships. The study found that by 2025, matches between singles will be made in labs, based on analysis of vital statistics and each person’s unique genetic code.
It also found that domestic digital assistants such as Alexa or Google Home could predict the health of marriages with 75% accuracy via acoustic analysis of verbal communication between couples.
When an argument breaks out, robots could even intervene with suggestions of a resolution.
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And there are other concerns too. Legal ones.
If we plan on spending our lives and sharing our thoughts with digitally connected machinery, we have to think about the implications for data and security. Serious data breaches have dominated the headlines in recent years and cyber-hacks are certainly on the rise.
If your robot partner knows all of your deepest, darkest secrets, your hopes, dreams, desires, turn-ons – you really don’t want that data falling into the wrong hands.
‘Of all the moral and ethical questions that spring to mind when you start to undress the idea of getting it on with a robot, data privacy might be low down on the list, but it poses a serious risk,’ says Jo O’Reilly Deputy Editor at ProPrivacy.com.
‘If, much like a human partner, a sex robot’s AI begins to learn what makes you tick between the sheets, you’re talking about the storing and processing of incredible amounts of extraordinarily intimate data.
‘You now have a robot with a blueprint to your entire sexual identity and a legal system ill-equipped to deal with this level of data intimacy.
‘GDPR strictly regulates the storage and collection of data around sexual orientation and behaviour but this is the very data a successful relationship robot would need to fulfill its function as a sexual partner.
Beyond the legal there are also huge philosophical and ethical questions to be asked.
There are concerns around ownership and power dynamics in a human/robot relationship. Can a sentient machine ever say ‘no’ if they have been designed to be a partner robot? And what about free will and choice?
If a machine has developed such advanced artificial intelligence that we see them as practically human, does that mean they also have the right to choose who they are in a relationship with?
Is love a uniquely human experience? Or is it something that can be programmed? Traditional concepts of love require mutual commitment. It’s not enough for you to feel a strong attachment to somebody – they have to feel a similar attachment to you.
It’s hard to know whether technology of the future will be able to sufficiently replicate this level of commitment without it being judged as simply performative.
Or, possibly, in a connection-starved future we will alter our definition of love in order to survive. Maybe our need for equal reciprocation won’t always be as important as it is now.
So can you fall in love with a robot?
It’s a question that’s about to be widely explored by scientists and romantic hopefuls for decades to come.
The Future Of Everything
This piece is part of Metro.co.uk’s series The Future Of Everything.
From OBEs to CEOs, professors to futurologists, economists to social theorists, politicians to multi-award winning academics, we think we’ve got the future covered, away from the doom mongering or easy Minority Report references.
Every weekday, we’re explaining what’s likely (or not likely) to happen.
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