Wednesday, December 26, 2007

On The Road To Robot Sex

Decades ago, I picked up a rock at a lake shore and threw it into the water. “That rock worked for 10,000 years to get that far up the shore,” my brother intoned, “and you just threw it back.” I cursed him for knowing me so well, predicting that I would find the comment absurd and funny, yet feeling just a little guilty anyway. People attribute sentience or feeling to inanimate objects all the time, with no encouragement from the objects themselves. But what if the objects were programmed to mimic human cuteness? There will be significant difficulty for us pulling back from falling in love with them. It sounds extremely disquieting, and not what we expected, but I think current trends lead us to that conclusion.
Glenn Reynolds links to a WaPo story this week that set off this whole train of thought in me.

We rely too heavily on the “ick” factor in our belief that such things will not happen, or will not commonly happen. The slight shudder and dyspeptic expression we experience we think will be enough for most other real human beings to stay away from such acts. But current trends are not leading to a science-fiction scenario of assembling a mail-order Bride of Frankenstein who speaks in some unnatural mechanical voice. That would indeed be an easy temptation to resist.

The likely extension of current trends will be much more difficult to stay aloof from. The evidence for this is that we are well down the road to loving such creatures already. Offices name the cute little robots that deliver the mail. Servicemen in Iraq grow attached to the bomb-dismantling robots assigned to their units. We don’t resist making other objects in our environment human – we actively seek it.

Since movie makers stopped filming galloping horses and moved on to the more lucrative practice of displaying lightly-clad dancers, we have been moving in a direction of sexual artificiality. There may not be a difference in principle between Ziegfield Follies and a painting by Titian, but few people in the 1920”s had art theaters with new works on display every week in their neighborhoods, or had a Titian hung in their family room. From the perspective of our ancestors, birth control is a remarkable step toward artificiality in sex. As with the paintings versus the movies, it is not that sex without possibility of conception was unknown before the 1960’s, but the change in availability is so enormous as to mark a qualitative change.

In any activity, we do not move from natural to artificial in one jump, and this holds for all switches from real to virtual as well. Putting realistic touches on an obviously artificial reality doesn’t bother us much, nor does enhancing a real experience through technology. People have alter-egos in RPG’s, and even alternate lives in Second Life. As those lives become more sophisticated, we will be having increasingly real interactions with other human beings who have accented different parts of their own real personality and place it in a different body. Those personalities will develop in new ways consistent with the new culture. Is that sex with robots? Sort of.

Arriving from the other direction, we have cosmetic surgery, ED medicines, and what used to be delicately called “marital aids.” What’s next? Chemicals or techniques that allow you to read your partner’s signals better? Gravity-reducing (or weight ameliorating) environments? Timing devices that communicate with each other and allow you to get your approximately correct rhythm in sync to the millisecond? (Would those be installed on a Wii or on the ear or hip? Hmm.) Whole programs you can install or uninstall on your skin like a CD, complete with starred reviews, compatible interfaces for your partner’s program, and medical warnings? Is that sex with robots?

Pornography has leveled off getting increasingly realistic, I am told. HD porn isn’t that attractive, being too much like us with our imperfections. I imagine something new, something better than mere realism, will soon replace it and start attracting all those porn dollars that have driven all our recent new communications technologies. (Instead of the predicted increase in sexual crime from ubiquitous pornography, it seems to have had the opposite effect, BTW. Kinkyporn-soaked Japan has a dangerously low birthrate.)

I have a humorous but troubling image of people saying some thirty years from now after they’ve been camping, or the power went out “We made love the old-fashioned, natural way. It was kind of nice. We decided we should do that more often.” There would be natural-sex advocates much like the natural food advocates now, publishing books and magazines.

Artificial pets are increasingly lifelike, programmed to hit all our cuteness buttons. Inveigling us to anthropomorphize them is not going to be a challenge. We already do that naturally. Sidekicks are only a step beyond that. Heck, I’d love to have a sidekick. The common complaint “But I wouldn’t want to have a friend who was completely predictable or under my control – that would be boring” would not apply. Too boring? We’ll make your sidekick a little more unpredictable, even eccentric or difficult. Like a book or game which we love because it challenges us, sidekicks will have self-adjusting levels of frustration. They will read your behavior, tones of voice, and facial expressions and gradually respond to them. I will bet that they will be installed with educational programs, so that your kid’s cute sidekick Binky makes her smarter than all the other little girls in her class, and better-adjusted, too. Specialty sidekicks for children with special needs will come to be seen as more efficient teachers than natural environments.

It’s pretty easy to imagine feeling guilty about trading in your sidekick for a new one, or having him reprogrammed. Wouldn’t it feel disloyal, even murderous in some weak sense? Artificial people are likely to be less irritating than real ones, not least because we can turn them off or put them away. More likely, one would upgrade the sidekick, adding new features to the old model. Every family would have one or two, like an ever-improving pet that did little errands and humorous things, whose expressions were a cause of merriment but whose abilities, especially in interacting with the other computers in the house, exceeded yours. They wouldn’t be human, particularly, but humanish, programmed with some of the endearing qualities we automatically respond do after generations of interacting with each other.

We would likely have their data backed up in a secure location regularly, in case something went wrong and we had to animate a new machine body with the old data. We would get used to “friends” of a sort being replaced with new bodies but much the same.

I don’t know where things might go from there. We can make up science-fiction endings based on the plausible extensions I have put forward, but real events take too many unexpected twists, and projecting too far forward rapidly leads to predictions of air cars and bubble cities. Perhaps the sidekicks will become rapidly more human. Or perhaps we won’t like that, and they will become something other than us, well-liked but different, as a pet or a character from a book might be. When we die, it may be possible for to use the data from our sidekicks to reverse-engineer us, creating something eerily like us in gesture and tone, closer to our real personalities than even our Alzheimered selves are late in life. Will we even want that? Will we be able to resist it even if we know it is bad for us?

But even without the fevered imaginings of grouchy old guys, we can plausibly see this far in thirty years: You have a Second Life character who has had some friends for decades in an enhanced, detailed 3-D world. Your kid’s artificial pets and sidekick are like members of the family, much easier to relate to than 90% of the human beings you know. The eccentric interactions of your own sidekick with your friends and relatives is a source of joy, reminding you that you not only chose well but have had a bit of luck as well – not everyone’s family has such good humans and sidekicks relations. You find people whose bodies and personalities are completely unenhanced to be somewhat unattractive and tedious, rather low-class. You still do see a few people in live reality, and keep in touch with many more electronically, because you think that’s important for a balanced life.

It’s not robot sex. But it’s starting to get disquietingly close, isn’t it?


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure what to say about robot sex, let me think on that one some more. But as for the pebble that got all this started (?), you're brother was wrong. That pebble didn't make it's way up slope from the bottom of the lake to the shoreline against gravity. It very likely weathered from a bank of glacial till bank of the shore. So it was on a journey to try to get to the lake these past 10,000 years. You just helped it along. A good deed geologically speaking. Be sure to tell your brother you are the hero of this story. akafred.

cold pizza said...

Folk singer Christine Lavin has a hilarious song, "Artificial Means," (lyrics here) that addresses Johny's and Janie's reliance on "toys" rather than each other in order to keep their relationship going. What to do, however, when the doll springs a leak and the batteries run dry? -cp

Erin said...

Sounds a bit like the "feelies" movies in A Brave New World.