Zoe Heller’s thought-provoking article “How Everyone Got So Lonely” (New Yorker 4.4.22) takes a look at loneliness and the recent decline in sexual activity. The latter part of Heller’s article, from which this blog piece has been excerpted and edited, focuses on robots as a (possibly?) satisfying solution for growing loneliness among people of all ages.
It is a powerful statement about the degree to which we underestimate both the epidemic of loneliness and the challenges of relationship.
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Should the business of making heterosexuality compatible with gender parity prove too onerous or intractable, we can always consider resorting to the less demanding companionship of machines. A forthcoming book by the sociologist Elyakim Kislev, “Relationships 5.0” (Oxford), describes a rapidly approaching future in which we will all have the option of assuaging our loneliness with robot friends and robot lovers.
To date, technology’s chief role in our love lives has been that of a shadchan, or matchmaker, bringing humans together with other humans, but in the next couple of decades, Kislev asserts, technology will graduate from this “facilitator” role and become a full-fledged “relationship partner,” capable of fulfilling “our social, emotional, and physical needs” all by itself….
Lest any of us doubt our capacity to suspend disbelief and feel things for robots, however beautifully they replicate the patterns of our degraded twenty-first century speech, Kislev refers us to Replika, a customizable chatbot app produced by a company in San Francisco which is already providing romantic companionship for hundreds of thousands of users. (In 2020, the Wall Street Journal reported that one Replika customer, Ayax Martinez, a twenty-four-year-old mechanical engineer living in Mexico City, flew to Tampico to show his chatbot Anette the ocean.)
In fact, Kislev points out, machines don’t need to attain the sophistication of Replika to be capable of inspiring our devotion. Think of the Tamagotchi craze of the nineties, in which adults as well as children became intensely attached to digital toy “pets” on handheld pixelated screens. Think of the warm relationships that many people already enjoy with their Roombas.
Robots may not be “ideal” companions for everyone, Kislev writes, but they do offer a radical solution to the world’s “loneliness epidemic.” For the elderly, the socially isolated, the chronically single, robots can provide what humans have manifestly failed to. Given that technology is credited with having helped to foster the world’s loneliness, it may strike some as perverse to look to more technology for a salve, but Kislev rejects any attempt to blame our tools for our societal dissatisfactions.
Advanced technology, he coolly assures us, “only allows us to acknowledge our wishes and accept our nature.” Investing meaning and emotion in a machine is essentially no different, he argues, from being moved by a piece of art: “Many fictional plays, films, and books are created intentionally to fill us with awe, bring us to tears, or surprise us. These are true emotions with very real meanings for us. Emotions-by-design, if you will” ….
For those who persist in finding the prospect of the robot future a little bleak, Kislev adopts the reassuring tone of an adult explaining reproduction to a squeamish child: it may all seem a bit yucky now, he tells us, but you’ll think differently later on. He may well be right about this. In surveys, young people –young men in particular — seem sanguine about robot relationships. And even among the older, analog set resistance to the idea has been found to erode with “continuous exposure.” Whether this erosion is to be wished for, however, is another question.
All technological innovations inspire fear. Socrates worried about writing replacing oral culture. The hunter-gatherers probably moaned about the advent of agriculture. But who’s to say they weren’t right to moan? The past fifty years would seem to have provided persuasive evidence contradicting Kislev’s assertion that technology only ever “discovers” or “answers” human wants. The Internet didn’t disinter a long-buried human need for constant content; it created it. And, as for our enduring ability to be engaged by the lie of art, it’s not at all clear that this is a convincing analogy for robot romance.
One crucial distinction between fiction and robots is that novels and plays, the good ones at least, are not designed with the sole intention of keeping their “users” happy. In this respect, they are less like robots and more like real-life romantic partners. What makes life with humans both intensely difficult and (theoretically) rewarding is precisely that they aren’t programmed to satisfy our desires, aren’t bound to tell us that we did great and look fabulous. They are liable to leave us if we misbehave, and sometimes even when we don’t.
Tellingly, one of the most recent A.I. sex-companion prototypes, a Spanish-made bot named Samantha, has been endowed with the ability to say no to sexual advances and to shut down if she feels “disrespected” or “bored.” Presumably, her creator is hoping to simulate some of the conditionality and unpredictability of human affection. It remains to be seen whether consumers will actually prefer a less accommodating Samantha. Given the option, humans have a marked tendency to choose convenience over challenge.