Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Electronic Love? -

Lately, a lot of my book choices have come from The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. One of these books was David Levy's Love + Sex With Robots. The book is an intriguing analysis and ultimately one which I cannot fault, in general. Basically, Levy argues that the upcoming advances in robotic technologies will result in a certain subset of the population falling in love with robots and having sex with them. It may seem like something out of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer or Battlestar Galactica, but Levy believes that the technology is quickly reaching the stage where it will be a reality.

Levy begins by laying out the research into the various reasons why people fall in love. This can be broken down into ten basic reasons:

  • Similarity
  • Desirable characteristics
  • Reciprocal liking
  • Social influences
  • Filling needs
  • Arousal/Unusualness
  • Specific cues
  • Readiness for entering a relationship
  • Being alone w/ object of love
  • Mystery
A quick look at these reasons will make it clear that the majority of them could, in theory, be applied to sufficiently advanced robots. A sophisticated robot could be designed to have any combination of physical traits, to have a personality which matches your own, to portray a reciprocity of emotion, etc. In fact, the largest hurdle is probably the "social influences," but such things change over time and by 2060 or so, who knows what social influences will be at work.

He goes on to discuss situations in which individuals love non-humans ... specifically, the emotional attachment formed with their pets. He also proceeds to discuss the wide range of ways in which people form emotional attachments to electronic devices, and of course love over the internet.

Here's an example of how serious these emotional attachments have already become: The Tamagotchi is a little "virtual pet" from Japan in the shape of a small, flattened egg which contains a video screen. On the video screen is your pet, and through the pushing of buttons you feed it, take it for walks, pet it, etc. If you fail to care for your Tamagotchi, it can actually wither away and die, which is a very sad experience. So sad, in fact, that orthodox Hebrews wanted to care for the Tamagotchi on Saturday, their Sabbath, when they are not even allowed to turn on and off light switches! The sole work that is allowed on Saturday is work in order to sustain a living soul.

So there had to actually be a ruling, from high-ups in the rabbinical organization of orthodox Judaism, about whether or not a Tamagotchi had a living soul!

Their conclusion is (hopefully) obvious, but still, it demonstrates the power of emotional attachments to these electronic beings. Just as you would feed your cat or dog on the Sabbath, many felt that you should equally be able to sustain the "life" of your Tamagotchi. And we know that some people care more for their cat or dog than they do for any other people. Now, imagine that they had a robot who could laugh at their jokes, express wonder at their intellect, and be impressed by the size of their ... well, you get the idea.

Some people, of course, would never allow themselves to see past the illusion, but with all of these factors laid out, it becomes clear that there would certainly be a subset of the population that would very likely fall in love with a robot. The robot would, of course, not love them back, but it would give the illusion that it does ... and maybe that's enough for some people.

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