Robots are gradually becoming a more important part of our lives, especially as they get more sophisticated in terms of how they can communicate and interact with us.
We already know technology will have huge consequences. Improvements in robotics mean that soon tons of jobs previously done by humans will be replaced by robots. It’s going to make for some very big issues as we figure out how we’re supposed to handle an economy where more than half of all adults will have no job prospects whatsoever.
But robots will also be working their way into our personal lives, not just to steal our jobs. And when I say personal, I mean really personal. Robots will be driving our public transit, they’ll be watching our kids in school, they’ll be taking care of our old people in retirement homes, and very soon, they’ll be giving us all colonoscopies.
And of course, there are the sex robots. Not just for the colonoscopy-fetishists, either. The sex-toy industry is spending ridiculous amounts of money in a kind of arms-race to see who develops the first successful high-end sex-robot.
Now a high-end sex-robot is still just basically like a sex-doll, or a waifu. Some weirdos already have a sex-doll as their full-time partner. In fact, at least a few people (mostly nerdy Asians) are “marrying” existing primitive sex-robots.
So there’s no question people will be having sex with robots. The real question is this: as robots become more able to communicate intelligently, interact with us, appear to express emotions of their own, will humans go beyond treating them as sex objects and start actual relationships with them?
Will we have robots as romantic partners, not just sex partners?
Futurama tried to warn us about this!
In a way, some people are already forming (non-sexual) relationships with robots. There’s a robot out there right now, called Pepper, and people are making friends with it.
Pepper’s obviously not boyfriend/girlfriend material, but it is a cute robot, who makes itself lovable. Humans all have certain triggers our brains associate with ‘cute’, and they’re pretty universal because they’re traits most babies and children have (and animals we keep as pets). Make a robot smaller than us, with big eyes and a small mouth and friendly colors, and we’ll think it’s adorable and want to hug it (even if we don’t all admit it).
Pepper can also read and display emotions. It can act like it has feelings, can read our own feelings fairly well and talk to us accordingly. It raises its voice when it’s “anxious,” and can develop likes and dislikes for people depending on how it’s treated.
Peppers have been sold to work customer service in different businesses or banks, and to act as a companion for families or children. One Pepper is even enrolled in a Japanese High School, and sounds so happy about it, saying “I never thought I’d be accepted into a human school! I’m going to do my best.”
Robots like Pepper could theoretically (if their communication skills are good enough) form relationships with us that we’ll be convinced are as genuine as those with, at the very least, our pets. But maybe, when they get good enough, our human relationships.
But there’s one barrier to overcome before we’re likely to see any chance of those relationships going “romantic”: appearance. And it’s not as simple as you think. First, consider that while many people might end up loving Pepper as a “person,” no one is going to love Pepper romantically. Ok, there are always freaks out there, but you get what I’m saying.
However, when you try to make a robot like Pepper look more dating-material human, you run into the “Uncanny Valley.”
Uncanny Valley is a real-life psychological phenomenon. When things act like people but don’t look like people, we’re like it and even find it increasingly cute the more like us they are… until they get TOO close to looking like us. Then we find it creepy, repulsive and even terrifying. But if something looks SO much like us that our brains can’t tell it isn’t anymore, then we’re back to being OK. The freak-out vs. OK effect on a chart looks like a sudden dip into a valley:
Very few people find Muppets to be ‘uncanny’ because they don’t look enough like us. Instead, we find them cute:
But some people find the more “realistic” animation of the Polar Express kids to be creepy:
And almost EVERYONE finds this thing creepy:
But then, most people DON’T freak out at this hyper-realistic but totally not-real image of Morgan Freeman, because it’s SO realistic it overcomes the uncanny valley.
We can have a ‘friend’ or ‘pet’ relationship with a robot on the ‘left’ side of the Uncanny Valley spectrum, because they don’t freak us out. But most non-fetishists would never imagine having either a sexual or romantic relationship with one.
Most “realistic” humanoid robots being made today fall right into the Uncanny Valley: they look very close to humans but are obviously not, so they creep most of us out. Some people might use them as sex toys but they are too “uncanny” to be thought of as people, and thus worthy of romance (just like you might have sex with someone who creeps you out, but you aren’t likely to move in with them).
In order to overcome that, robots will end up needing to look so much like us that we probably won’t be able to tell them apart (at least not by facial features) from real humans. Then our brain will convince us it’s alright.
As this stage is coming soon, it’s entirely possible that people reading this today will one day have long and fulfilling love affairs with robots. Weird, but possible.