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October 31, 2007

Loving (and Making Love to) Machines

The final frontier of marriage will be between a lonely person and his automated sex doll, says robotics researcher and author David Levy.

J. Michelangelo Stein

By 2050, people will not only be having sex with robots, they'll also be attempting to marry them. So says scientist and author David Levy, who recently filed a Ph.D. thesis at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands entitled, "Intimate Relationships with Artificial Partners." Despite the brashness of his claims, Levy is no fresh-faced postdoctoral researcher. He has already published a book on artificial intelligence (Robots Unlimited) and his latest book, Love and Sex with Robots, which was adapted from his dissertation, is published on November 6th.

"Just think of all those lonely people who have no one to love and no one to love them. Robots can provide a solution."—David Levy

Stating that in the very near future a large group of people will be fighting for the right to marry machines is bound to cause controversy. Levy's thesis is explosive enough to earn him a slew of major interviews and a national television appearance on The Colbert Report in early November, where the would-be presidential candidate will no doubt fillet him for his shocking predictions.

In the following interview, edited for clarity, Levy practices his Colbert retorts and discusses anthropomorphism, robot adultery, and all the lonely people who will finally find love.

Gelf Magazine: How does one go about making the case for intimacy with robots in a scientific way?

David Levy: In my research there are two main approaches.
The first is that I have revealed parallels between the most significant reasons why people fall in love (with people) and the reasons why I am convinced that people will fall in love with robots. I have also revealed parallels between the main motivations for having sex (with people) and the reasons why we enjoy sex (with people), and the motivations and reasons why I am convinced that sex with robots will become commonplace. Another parallel is derived from the reasons people pay for sex—what they get out of the experience. I show that the same reasons are just as valid for sex with robots as they are for sex with a human prostitute.
The second is that I have examined trends in the development of sex technologies, trends and changes in our sexual mores, and shown that these trends, when extrapolated, are consistent with my forecasts about sex with robots.

GM: So do you think the robots we have sex with in the future will be more like wives or prostitutes? Basically, what do you predict the breakdown will be between robots used for sex and those used for love (and sex)?

DL: I believe that at first most of the sexual uses of robots will be prompted by curiosity. After that—particularly once robot sex gets a good press—I believe that people will use sex robots more for the physical pleasure of sex than for emotion-related reasons. It will take longer for researchers to develop robots that are sufficiently human-like to be treated, by a significant percentage of the population, as wife-substitutes.

GM: Love is a somewhat inscrutable thing. Even if the building blocks for love exist (sex, caring, etc.) how can we call these things, when felt for a robot, love?

DL: If someone says that they feel love for their robot, why should we doubt it?

GM: Does that mean you don't think love can be quantified?

DL: I believe that love can be measured, and will be measured, using brain-scan technologies, for example (I touch on this in my book and thesis). My point is that if a woman says she loves you, and acts in various ways that you associate with people who are in love, then you probably would not doubt her unless you had a good reason to do so. Similarly for robots.

GM: You compare the prospect of legal battles for robot marriage with interracial marriage. This is not an airtight analogy, right?

DL: It is not airtight in the sense that robots and humans are not the same. But what my analogy does demonstrate is that the nature of marriage has changed a lot during the past half-century or so, that marriage is still very much subject to change, and that we can therefore expect more changes in the future in our ideas about marriage.

GM: One reason your work seems to have attracted so much interest is that there's a constant discussion about protecting the institution of marriage. I can just see some evangelist preacher saying, "If we let the gays get married, what's next? There's some heathen professor who says we should be able to marry machines." Why do you think marriage invokes such strong words?

DL: Because marriage has been at the foundation of our social lives since the beginnings of (human) time.

GM: What does your research have to say about the ways in which robots will or may fall short, when compared to humans, in love or marriage?

DL: My research has focused on the positives, demonstrating that love and sex with robots are perfectly viable. Within my arguments I have tried to demonstrate how the shortcomings that might be expected to exist in robots can and will be overcome.

"If you want a faithful robot, you can have one, and if you get turned on by having an unfaithful partner, you can have that as well."
GM: Robot-rebellion movies aside, robots are pretty loyal. Why would there be even a need for marriage? Do you predict robot infidelity?

DL: The need would come from the humans, just as many people today feel the need to marry while many others feel no such need and are happy just to co-habitate. As to robot infidelity, as with other aspects of robot behavior it will be selectable (and changeable) by the robot's owner. So if you want a faithful robot, you can have one, and if you get turned on by having an unfaithful partner, you can have that as well.

GM: Robots are meant to be practical. Why do robot-makers spend so much time trying to make them look human?

DL: It has been found, particularly by Japanese researchers, that people react better to interactions with a human-looking robot than they do with a robot that is less humanlike in appearance. This might well be because people tend to be more comfortable with the familiar than with the unfamiliar.

GM: How do RealDolls fit into your thinking?

DL: Basically I see the next generation of sex dolls as having some electronic components—vibrating parts and speech synthesis—that give a more-convincing experience than the lifeless dolls on the market today. The technology is already here; it is just a question of a corporation taking the decision to integrate this type of electronic technology with the silicone doll technology.

GM: What if people made robots to look like children and then pursued intimacy with them? Should that be legal?

DL: Personally I would make that illegal, unless it was prescribed by legal and/or medical authorities as a first step on the way to try to cure someone of pedophilia. I believe that the way we treat robots in the future is a very important ethical issue, and that we should treat robots as we would want them to treat us; otherwise we are setting a bad example for our children.

"I see the next generation of sex dolls as having some electronic components—vibrating parts and speech synthesis—that give a more-convincing experience than the lifeless dolls on the market today."
GM: Philosophers, poets, and others of that ilk have long complained that modernity has been ripping apart the seams of human families and communities. Does your thesis give further ammunition to those who think technology actually threatens love?

DL: Possibly, but I feel quite strongly that the upside more than compensates. Just think of all those lonely people who have no one to love and no one to love them. Robots can provide a solution.

GM: Has your research changed the way you look at your own interpersonal relationships or those of other people around you?

DL: No.

GM: Plotting the future path of technology is notoriously difficult, as demonstrated by the heaps of science-fiction novels predicting flying cars and robotic dystopias by the year 2000. Lots of people thought robots would play a much bigger role in everyday life by now. How does your work control for the unpredictability of the future?

DL: In my research I have extrapolated from trends in order to demonstrate why I am so convinced about my forecasts. My work is anything but science fiction. It is based on an examination of some 450 research publications, books, etc.

GM: Your dissertation has gained you a good amount of public attention. Do you plan to stay in the spotlight?

DL: It is true that I now find myself in the spotlight. The media attention that my research has attracted will certainly have the effect of keeping my mind on this whole area and some other associated areas (such as robot consciousness). I find the subject absolutely fascinating and exciting. Who knows what might come out of all this publicity? Perhaps it will encourage entrepreneurs to develop more advanced sex dolls, ones that have some of the characteristics of the sex robots about which I have written. I would certainly be interested in working on such a project.

Related on the Web

• Levy talked with Live Science about the ethical conundrums of robot sex.

• Man/Robot love was the subject of an early Twilight Zone episode.

Related on Gelf

In the future, people will be able to take out their sexual frustration on robots. Until then, their best hope may be a wingman.

J. Michelangelo Stein

J. Michelangelo Stein, a history graduate student, lives in Los Angeles.

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- Just Disserts
- posted on May 20, 08

The robots will take the control once they have conscience of themselves. Silicon pussies will arise in the horizon and felattios will take the power everywhere.

Article by J. Michelangelo Stein

J. Michelangelo Stein, a history graduate student, lives in Los Angeles.

Learn more about this author


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