My Electronic Lover – Can we really love robots?

A.I. expert David Levy predicted in his book ‘Love and Sex with Robots’ that we will all be having sex with horny androids within a matter of decades.  As we are only days away from the unveiling of the world’s first commercial sex robot, I thought I would come back to Levy’s excellent book after reading a highly illuminating review of it online today.  The review seems to recognise the fundamental philosophical problems that I feel Levy does skirt over somewhat :

Can we (the majority) truly love robots if 1/ we cannot be certain that the robot is conscious like ourselves, and 2/ the robot’s ‘love’ for us is simply programmed in to it.

On the first point, Levy takes a very liberal interpretation of the Turing test – the idea that if the robot, or A.I. mind behaves as though it were conscious, we should readily believe and assume that it IS conscious.  However, since Turin imagined his test half a century ago, we have seen great advances in the field of A.I. in humanoid robotics, but few believe that we are close to creating anything that is truly conscious.  For example, roboticists are making great progress in creating android faces that can mimic human facial expressions, seemingly indicating emotion.  But NOBODY would surely suggest that this represents anything more than an advance in the ability to MIMIC human consciousness and the expression of emotion. 

In fact, it does appear that scientists will be able to bundle a number of these small progressive steps together and create a fairly convincing humanoid sometime soon (hopefully True Companion’s ‘Roxxxy’ will be it), but still it is unlikely that such a thing would be considered in any way ‘conscious’.  If this is the case, can we love things that are not conscious?  Levy devotes an entire chapter into trying to demonstrate that we can (for example, robot pets), but it seems a huge leap to suggest we could love and even marry robots that are not sentient.  Do those Japanese men on YouTube really love their realistic CandyDolls?  I doubt it, and until such things become conscious, then surely they are nothing more than (fantastic) masturbation aids. 

The second point is rather tied up with the first.  Even if we granted some form of consciousness to a sexy robot with artificial intelligence, would we be content if the love it felt for us was simply programmed in to it, even if the ‘love’ was genuinely felt by the truly conscious robot?  My answer to this would be almost certainly yes, at least if the emphasis was placed more on lust than love.  The phenomenon of the ‘pick-up-artist’ culture, for example, shows that many men seem content on winning a woman’s love, or at least sex’, even if a little ‘manipulation’ and fakery is used.  However, once robots ever do have true consciousness, it will be guaranteed that huge amounts of legislation will be in play forbidding such sentient beings to be ‘programmed’ to have sex with their ‘owners’.  If Levy’s thesis then becomes one of simply asking whether or not humans will desire sex and fall in love with fully sentient robots who are capable of giving and withholding consent, then the answer would surely be an uncontroversial yes.  The one weakness of Levy’s otherwise brilliant and fascinating thesis is that he doesn’t really go deep enough in clarfiying the notions of conscious/non-conscious, consent and non-consent.

There are a few problems with the techno-utopia that Levy describes. First of all, his vision depends on the expectation of a significant breakthrough in the area of artificial intelligence. Levy’s forecasts may not be in the most far-out reaches of this field, but there are no guarantees about the future of strong AI, which has so far advanced quite slowly.

But even if his predictions come true, it still seems that a scientific attempt at programming love is likely to crash when confronted with the capriciousness and arbitrariness that characterize human emotions. Can a robot that fulfills all our wishes sustain our interest? Isn’t it exactly those unexpected, uncertain, arbitrary aspects of love that give it such great power? Levy is aware of the problem, of course. He writes that “some humans might feel that a certain fragility is missing in their robot relationship, relative to a human-human relationship, but that fragility, that transient aspect of human-human relationships, as with so much else in robotics, will be capable of simulation.”

But the need of Levy and others to simulate love and create robots that take into account the contradictions of the human soul leads to profound, and disturbing, questions. For example, what about the human need to win love from an entity that is capable of independent thinking and decision making? What is the meaning of a declaration of robotic love? In this Levy follows the lead of computer pioneer Alan Turing, who said that if a machine seems intelligent, we have to conclude that it is intelligent. Levy admits that the idea of a robot loving you seems a little horrifying at first. But if the robot’s behavior is completely consistent, why doubt it? In a future where robots have convincing looks and behavior, people who live with them daily will see them as partners and friends, Levy claims.

Click the link below to read the entire review :

My Electronic Lover – Review of David Levy’s ‘Love and Sex with Robots’

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