Artificial-intelligence researcher David Levy at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands says humans will marry robots by the year 2050. I don't think so.
“My forecast is that around 2050, the state of Massachusetts will be the first jurisdiction to legalize marriages with robots,” Levy said last week in an interview with Charles Q. Choi of the online news source LiveScience. Levy successfully defended his doctoral dissertation covering the subject of human-robot relationships on Oct. 11, so now he is a doctor who thinks that rice will be raining down on human-robot couples at City Hall in Boston 43 years from now.
I find Levy's conjecture an insult to same-sex human couples who have gained the right to marry in Massachusetts after a long-fought, ongoing civil-rights struggle. Levy is, hopefully unintentionally, greasing the slippery slope that homophobes slide down when they argue that gay marriage will lead to people marrying animals, objects or more than one human, in effect expanding the definition of marriage to mean anything and nothing. Levy's robot fascination cheapens the importance of allowing any adult human couple to marry.
But before you think I completely disagree with Levy, let me make myself clear: Aside from the 2050 and Massachusetts parts, I think he is theoretically right.
As Choi points out, we humans have been smitten with our artistic and/or mechanical creations since antiquity. In the Greek myth of Pygmalion, the sculptor falls in love with Galatea, an ivory statue he makes, and to which the goddess Venus eventually gives life.
The idea has been explored to death in science fiction and persists as robots become more and more sophisticated.
“There's a trend of robots becoming more human-like in appearance and coming more in contact with humans,” Levy said. “At first robots were used impersonally, in factories where they helped build automobiles, for instance. Then they were used in offices to deliver mail, or to show visitors around museums, or in homes as vacuum cleaners, such as with the Roomba. Now you have robot toys, like Sony's Aibo robot dog, or Tickle Me Elmos, or digital pets like Tamagotchis.” The direction in which we're headed seems obvious.
Last year, Henrik Christensen, founder of the European Robotics Research Network, predicted that people will be having sex with robots within five years. Levy agrees, and so do I. It would be nearly ridiculous to contend otherwise. The new movie Lars and the Real Girl stars Ryan Gosling as a man in a relationship with a RealDoll named Bianca, “born” right in our own backyard at San Marcos-based Abyss Creations, a company that specializes in providing increasingly popular, realistic, malleable dolls primarily to lonely men. It's not a stretch to recognize the market potential for adding voice-activated responses and other robotic features to such dolls.
Anyone familiar with the recent strides made in android technologies in Japan can tell you that though the latest batch of Japanese robot hostesses and cashiers are far from human, they are eerily closer than even a decade ago. Type “android” or “gynoid” in a YouTube search and see what I mean.
Sex with robots is not likelihood; it is reality. As artificial humans become more realistic, the subset of humans who go so far as to get physical with them will increase. And as the mysteries of human programming are further unraveled, the Galateas of the future will come that much closer to acquiring Venus' gift.
This is where Levy is right in theory. Given the circumstances of increasing technologies and unlimited time, it is inevitable that robots would one day appear and behave so similarly to humans that questions of their rights, including the right to marry, would have to be addressed. It seems likely that some humans and/or robots would push for and possibly secure such rights.
Levy may be going out on an artificial limb in suggesting that the strange future of human-robot marriage is right around the corner, a wild claim that has succeeded in getting him more attention than a love doll could give him, but the ultimate claim is serious.
The question the claim begs is: What are the real circumstances?
Roboticist Ronald Arkin at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, told Choi that human-robot marriage probably won't happen by 2050 but that robot sex, a certainty, raises some other difficult ethical questions.
“If you have pedophiles and you let them use a robotic child, will that reduce the incidence of them abusing real children, or will it increase it?” he asked. “If we allow robots to become a part of everyday life and bond with them, we'll have to ask questions about what's going to happen to our social fabric. How will they change humanity and civilization?”
I think Arkin's concerns about robot sex are the ones we have to face. But robot marriage? It will take a long, long time before robots are sophisticated enough for even a zany state like Massachusetts to consider allowing people to marry them. And we just don't have that much time.
Simply, humans probably won't exist on the planet long enough for us to marry robots. And that, my friend, is the silver lining of the end-of-the-world mushroom cloud we've all been looking for. Human-robot marriage is creepy, and we should be relieved that we're not going to be around to have to deal with it.
I know that “cyborg theory” originator, professor Donna Haraway, argued convincingly that with the postmodern blurring of man and machine, we're all becoming cyborgian anyway. And I am well aware that robots could theoretically become indistinguishable from humans, rendering my prejudices as heartless as the anti-android discrimination depicted in the film AI. But the future-world of that film is never going to arrive. The world will have devolved into a poisonous, radioactive, melting deathtrap unfit for humans long before we have to worry about robot feelings or whether our sisters and brothers are legally walking down the aisle with mechanical mates.
That's why I think robot researchers should focus more on robot-sex issues and put robot marriage on the back burner. Robot sex is a dying-planet reality. Robot marriage, the ultimate specter of unflawed love, like the ideal of a permanent world, is a fool's paradise.