Author Says Humans Could Form Emotional Attachments to Robots

Tuesday, 26 November 2019 - 12:41PM
Weird Science
Robotics
Tuesday, 26 November 2019 - 12:41PM
Author Says Humans Could Form Emotional Attachments to Robots
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Adapted from Pixabay image
I've always thought it was a little strange to hear anyone express affection for a product – particularly technological products – in terms of love. While I understand that some of this is an effect of the combined influence of advertising and media hyperbole, status anxiety, and the power of social identification, I'm also wary about the way that language affects the way that people see the world; that is, the way that language shapes reality. 


Language, however, is not the only force that shapes reality. In Enchanting Robots: Intimacy, Magic, and Technology, Dr. Maciej Musiał, a professor of philosophy at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland, makes the case that technology will eventually lead to emotional relationships – and perhaps marriage – between humans and Artificial Intelligence (AI) or robots. His thesis, as the title signals, revolves around the idea of enchantment. His book aims to to understand the "magical thinking" surrounding robots in the larger context of human disenchantment with modernity – particularly of and with other humans and the relationships between them – of which an enchantment with robots is, perhaps, a symptom. 


In an abstract summarizing one of the book's chapters, Musiał argues that "robots enchant humans and are perceived as potential intimate partners because humans are becoming progressively disenchanted in the sense that they are increasingly considered to be non-unique and problematic, while robots are seen as possessing all positive characteristics of humans without any flaws typical of humans." This isn't a new idea: disenchantment – and a corresponding shift in enchantment with someone or something new/novel – leads people to all kinds of projections that are often only recognized as such in retrospect. 


The author is aware of this. "When we examine our past personal enchantments, disenchantments, and re-enchantments," Musiał writes, "we often come to the conclusion that they were not only – or maybe even not primarily – about the people or objects or any part of reality external to us, but were rather a matter of our own thinking." The difference here, of course, is that the shift in thinking in those so-inclined is towards objects of fantasy and desire that have no agency, no fantasies or desires of their own. This is observable in the rise of those identifying as "digisexuals" and the increased interest in "sex robots," (what Anton LaVey – the founder of the Church of Satan and an early proponent of such technologies – more accurately termed "Artificial Human Companions," given the psychological and emotional proxy roles these technologies seem to play).


Those who find themselves afflicted by these technologies, then, don't augment human relationships, but rather aim to replace them by removing the variable – other people – that they perceive as problematic.


"The border between the virtual and the real, between simulation and what is simulated, is becoming blurred," Musiał says. "Relationships in virtual realities are often perceived as equally real and more satisfying than traditional relationships. On the other hand, relationships with robots that do not have feelings or consciousness, but can simulate them, are perceived as not significantly different from relationships with people."


But can a "relationship" with a machine be called such? While linguistically, there's an argument for it (one of the early definitions explicates a connection, not an exchange), I keep coming back to philosopher Alain de Botton's description of a crush as a more definitive model:


Opening quote
A crush represents in pure and perfect form the dynamics of romantic philosophy: the explosive interaction of limited knowledge, outward obstacles to further discovery – and boundless hope.
Closing quote



De Botton does not stop there, however. As innocuous as a crush may be – and I argue that the same holds true for having a crush on a machine/AI/or Artificial Human Companion – it does suggest that a little introspection and self-consideration may be in order. De Botton writes, "To crush well is to realise that the lovely person we sketch in our heads is our creation: a creation that says more about us, than about them. But what it says about us is important. The crush gives us access to our own ideals. We may not really be getting to know another person properly, but we are growing our insight into who we really are."


"It is worth considering if this the sort of world we want," Musiał writes, and it is worth considering. His exploration of the subject raises a question about the wisdom of positioning technology as a solution to a psychological need rather than a tool by which humans might, with a little fearless insight, learn more about what it is they want from their lives, their creations, and the things and people that they love. 
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