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David Levy argues that it will not be long before people are having relationships with robots. In the first part of the book, he argues that people are psychologically capable of forming attachments and even loving robots. The second part argues that people would be interested in having sex with robots. Of course, many people will view his claims with skepticism, and will say that they could never have such relationships. Yet he makes a strong case that may surprise readers with its force.
Each part proceeds methodically in four chapters. Considering love, Levy first examines current psychological wisdom about love and attachment in human relationships. He points out that there are strong parallels between infant-caregiver relationships and adult romantic relationships, and both are governed by the same biological system. Repeated exposure to a person tends to make friendship and love more likely. Levy then lists ten factors relevant to people falling in love: similarity; desirable characteristics of the other; reciprocal liking; social influences; filling needs; arousal/unusualness; specific cues; readiness for entering a relationship; being alone with the love object, or exclusiveness, and mystery. Levy's writing style is straightforward and clear. He refers to some of the academic literature on the topic and there is a short collection of references at the end of the book, but Levy is writing for a general audience and so he does not try to be scholarly.
One of the most powerful parts of Levy's overall argument is his observation that people form very strong attachments to non-humans, especially their pets. He notes the anthropomorphism of pets by their owners, and spells out some of the psychological and health benefits that have been demonstrated from people loving their pets. He goes on in the next chapter to note that people have relationships with electronic objects such as computers, and that people often anthropomorphize their computers. He quotes liberally from the work of Reeves and Nass, especially their book The Media Equation: How People Treat Computers, Television, and New Media Like Real People and Places and their subsequent work. Levy uses this evidence to argue that people do enter into social relationships with computers. He further draws on the popularity of virtual pets and the handheld digital pet Tamagotchi to make his argument, and again, he has a point. People have shown a propensity to form intense attachments to these virtual pets. Sony Corporation released its AIBO robot dog in 1999, and discontinued production in 2006, causing considerable upset to many AIBO owners. These existing examples already show people's readiness to form attachments to robots.
The final chapter in the second part looks to the future, when it will be possible to build robots that are emotionally intelligent and can closely mimic the emotions of humans. He argues that it will also be important for them to look like humans, because humans will respond more to them if they do. Levy predicts that such robots will be well integrated into society, and people will form close relationships to them. Indeed, some people will prefer to socialize with robots, citing evidence that already some people prefer to spend time on their computers than with other people. Robots will be more reliable and trustworthy than people often are, and it will be possible to give them appealing personalities. He applies the list of ten factors relevant to people falling in love, mentioned above, to these future robots, and concludes that most of them can apply to relationships with robots. The ones in question are those that depend on deciding whether robots can have real emotions, or whether they just mimic them. He anticipates that it may even become possible for humans to marry robots.
The second part of the book has the easier argument, that people will want to have sex with robots. If men are willing to have sex with inflatable dolls, clearly having sex with a robot can only be a step up. Levy also emphasizes that women may well be interested because robots could make more satisfying lovers then human men. As with the first part, his argument is set out systematically. First, he examines the reasons people have sex. Surveys show that the main reasons are for personal pleasure, emotional closeness, to please one's partner, because one's partner wants to, to release tension, for reproduction, and for conquest. Levy moves on to consider sexual transactions that people seek where there is clearly no love: sex with prostitutes. It is difficult to get good estimates of how common it is for men to pay women for sex, but he suggests that it is at least 16-20% of adult American men. In some other countries, the proportion is probably considerably higher. The proportion of women who pay men for sex is probably far less, and often the transaction is so straightforwardly financial, but there may be a pretense of romance. However, it is clear, especially in the area of sexual tourism, that women are ready to get into short term sexual relationships and will financially support men to do so.
Moving on to advances in sexual technology, Levy's discussion is frank but not seedy. He gives a short history of vibrators for women going back to 1653. He gives some evidence that the use of vibrators has grown rapidly in the last thirty years, and that sales of vibrators are strong. One chain of sex shops in the UK sold 2.5 million of them in 2004 alone. Levy gives a parallel exposition of the history of technical devices created to stimulate the penis, and of artificial vaginas and fornicatory dolls. While most of the dolls are incredibly crude, modern technology is making them more lifelike. One business, Real Doll, that custom makes dolls for customers, charges thousands of dollars and is apparently doing good business. Another business, in Japan, rents out sex dolls to customers. Levy also traces the history of sex machines, paying most careful attention to the Sybian and some other recent models. As with other technology, Levy suggests that such sex machines will become more sophisticated in the relatively near future as they become integrated with artificial intelligence. Levy concludes that while there may be initial social taboos on sexual relationships with robots, they will become more socially acceptable as people get used to them. He further suggests that people will come to rely on sex robots since they will be more patient and ready to please us than humans.
While Levy recognizes that not everyone welcomes the future he envisages, he is enthusiastic, and he mainly focuses on the ways that our lives will be enhanced by our attachment and sexual relations with robots. It is hard to imagine that these future robots will be as complex as humans in the foreseeable future. If they do get to be as sophisticated as humans, then they will want their own autonomy and will be unlikely to simply be ready to act as servants for humans. If the robots are not as emotionally complex and intelligent as humans, then our relationships with them will be impoverished. Furthermore, if we are simply getting robots to act as our servants, yet we are having loving relationships with them and are also having sex with them, this may have a problematic effect on our own characters. Furthermore, there is already a serious problem with people becoming addicted to computer games and cyberporn, and it would be all too easy for people to become overly dependent on their robot partners to the exclusion of other relationships with humans. So the problems of relationships with robots need to be taken into consideration before becoming overenthusiastic for our sexual and romantic relationships with robots. Nevertheless, Levy's book does a nice job at bringing information together and setting it out clearly. Love and Sex with Robots is provocative, without being ridiculous.
© 2008 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.
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