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Would human-robot relationships really take off when machines are smart enough?

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As odd as it may have sounded, I’ve said multiple times that the web did not change human sexuality nearly as much as we’re often told and much of the novelty is really just well forgotten antiquity ranging from Roman orgies to the personal and highly publicized perversions of Marquis de Sade. Aside from making it easier to find and talk to our fellow perverts, not a whole lot has actually changed about our sexual appetites, despite threats of runaway pornography addicts from angry conservatives and loud alarms about men quickly becoming more sexually deviant from borderline misandrists.

In fact, I’ll even bet you that transhumanist sexual fantasies of computer-assisted mind-melding is an extension of 1960s New Ageisms in which quantum vibrations along with large quantities of drugs and meditation have been substituted with machine-neuron interfaces and very big leaps in some very hazy new areas of computer science. But this said, I’ll grant you something unique when it comes to the fantasies of futurists known as AFSR or a fetish for humaniod robots, often custom built to turn one’s wildest fantasies into reality and trained to be the perfect object of arousal. And according to new literature looking at human and computer interaction, that market could be very lucrative for a lot of people…

One of the more recent summations of how comes from Ian Yeoman and Michelle Mars’ scenario for a robot brothel that would substitute advanced versions of Real Dolls we have today for flesh and blood women, a scenario that could put a real dent in the amount of human trafficking, misery, and woe that’s inflicted on many sex workers shuttled around the world to staff illegal establishments ran by organized crime groups. No need to torture a human and subject her to countless risks when one can just buy a robot and sanitize it after every use, then simply pay for maintenance and amortized depreciation.

And the manufacturers would certainly make plenty of male models too because contrary to popular opinion, women do pay for sex to ensure they’ll get the experience they want and you will be hard pressed to find be a more certain return on their investment than a robot. Now you could still imagine an illegal industry trading in real humans for added kink, but when a much safer, legal, and human option is within easy reach, it would more likely become a niche market. Try to outlaw robotic call girls and boys and you’d have to bring a case which would put any sex toy under threat of a swift illegalization and create an uproar from voters. As for the robots themselves, they’re just doing what they will be programmed to do and nothing you do or say will hurt them since they’ll lack real emotions.

Not for long though, says David Levy in his 2007 book which declares that with enough advancement in AI, a string of human-robot relationships and even marriages will take off. From a psychological standpoint, his thesis is sound. There are numerous people out there who crave attention from other humans but simply don’t know how to get it, using Real Dolls and products like them as not only sexual but emotional surrogates which actually serves to make them even more befuddled by the seeming irrationality of who they sometimes call “organic partners,” creating a cycle of co-dependence on their synthetic substitutes. Add some AI that will make those machines more animated, give them perceived moods and ideas, and voila!

Why even look for a bothersome, unpredictable, hormonally driven organic partner when a controllable synthetic one is right here and could be fine tuned to be exactly what you’d like? And if you spend years taking care of this machine, why not somehow commemorate the bond just like the organics do? Well, that’s where we enter the legal realm’s difficulties for this scenario. You won’t be able to marry a robot for the same reason you can’t marry toasters or cell phones. Even AI-enabled machines are not entities with free will that can give their consent. If you write a boyfriend or girlfriend routine, of course the robot will consent to whatever you want. It’s in the code.

Also, what about the courts’ idea of whether the human can legitimately even consider marrying or being in an emotional relationship with a robot? It would be one thing if humans didn’t seem to show a preference for the company of other humans, but we do. And as we’ve seen, those who may be the most likely to treat a robot as we would treat a significant other could well be substituting human contact. Would a judge consider someone who finds himself — because let’s be honest, it’s usually males who experience this — unable to relate to girls or women around him and turns to inanimate objects for emotional and sexual gratification, as mentally fit to have a legal relationship with any entity other than another person?

On the other side of the argument, I could see activists making the claim that we can’t force someone to conform to whatever the social custom is at the time because that’s discriminatory, and argue that a sufficiently engaging AI should have personhood and be allowed to give consent for things like marriage. But these are not going to be easy arguments to make and if there ever are official human-robot marriages or a sudden explosion in human-robot relationships, expect there to be a lot of acrimony about it in the media. There won’t be smooth transitions and any incident in which human users of sex bots get injured or an AI goes haywire will be agonizingly dissected during the debates.

# tech // culture / love / marriage / robotics

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