Romancing the Robot

Could we ever truly love a robot?

An ancient Greek myth tells the tale of a sculptor named Pygmalion who creates an ivory statue of a beautiful woman. The statue is so realistic that Pygmalion falls in love with it, praying to Venus, the god of love, to bring his creation to life. Venus answers his prayers at last, and when the hard ivory is turned to flesh, Pygmalion marries her. This may seem like a fanciful tale of the imagination, far removed from the reaches of everyday life, but cutting edge artificial intelligence research suggests that modern-day ivory statues may soon come to life and that humans are more capable than ever of forming emotional attachments to nonhuman entities.

Associate Professor of Philosophy at Trinity Western University Robert Doede, an expert in philosophy of mind and philosophy of embodiment, cites two explanations for the ancient and on-going human fascination with artificial intelligence or AI. First, the creation of artificial life comes out of a basic search for self-understanding. "The belief is that if we can engineer intelligent artifacts we can get a better understanding of our own essence, and what makes us so special," he says. Second, there are utilitarian reasons for creating AI, like getting rid of human workers who demand overtime and designing efficient machines for specific tasks.

Robots may be useful in factory settings, and they may help us define who we are as human beings, but even more shocking is the fact that humans have demonstrated the capacity to form deep emotional attachments to robotic gadgets. Owners of the Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner, for example, are reportedly naming, ascribing a gender, and occasionally even dressing up their cleaning machines.

This doesn't come as a surprise to Doede, who believes that these robot-human bonds are the result of the fact that humans are created as relational beings that naturally form deep attachments. "I think the reason humans can form emotional attachments with robotic beings is ultimately because we bear the image of an eternally, intrinsically, social being, God. And an expression of that is that we need relationships. It's pretty extreme and irrepressible, and you can see that humans can express and realize deep attachments to animals, to pets. Anything that we can nurture to some degree we're going to become attached to," he says.

He also believes that the individualistic lifestyle and mindset of modern society may finally have run its course. "I think we're finding the emptiness of living out the modern project and so there's this excessive, irrepressible need to socialize for intimacy and companionship that comes out in kind of absurd and kind of unpredictable ways."

Doede compares the uncanny allure of robots to the appeal of animals, explaining that both animals and robots are entities that sit on the threshold between the human and the nonhuman.

But robotic companions possess certain qualities that make them even more appealing. Unlike a pet or a human companion, robots come complete with an "on" and "off" switch, and it may soon be possible to program a robot friend that is tailored to suit an individual's personal preferences. "All the things that could be liabilities in human relationships, with a robot you can just switch it off, erase, delete, and so it becomes a relational entity that gives us a lot of what we want without a lot of stuff that we don't want," explains Doede.

But Doede cautions about the perils of becoming emotionally attached to a robotic being, citing the potentially dehumanizing effects of human-robot relationships. "Fundamental to deep humanity is the capacity to de-center or self-empty, to give place to an other, and I think robot-human relationships are going to diminish our capacity for this because we're always in a sense going to be the managers of the thing. It's a lot of allowing the ego to continue to expand its expression without the kind of discipline and de-centering that a human companion or even a pet companion may require," he says.

Doede isn't too worried that robots are going to replace humans as our nearest and dearest companions because when it comes right down to it, he doesn't believe that they will be able to "answer the demands of our hearts." He also doesn't think that most people will be able to forget the fact that their robotic-friend is at their own disposal and that its responses have been tailored to match their own pre-specified in-put. "That's going to render the experience of a robot saying ‘I love you' or ‘I feel your pain' really thin," he predicts.

As with any new technology, Doede is aware that there will be positive and negative implications to the creation and use of intelligent robots. "Any technology you introduce gives and it takes away. Intelligent robots are going to introduce more efficiency, precision, and power into whatever contexts they are placed, but they are also going to take away the human touch. In fiscally and emotionally demanding contexts such as caring for the elderly and the handicapped, the temptation to allow their role to change from assisting us to taking our place will likely become irresistible in the coming years."

When asked what approach he takes to life in a fast-paced, technologically driven culture, Doede says that he tries to be "a wrench in the machine" and "an anti-body in the organism of society. "Our progressive culture trains us to embrace new technologies, to always see only what they give and not even raise the question of what they take away."

Trinity Western University, in Langley, B.C., is an independent Christian liberal arts and sciences university enrolling approximately 4000 students. TWU offers 42undergraduate majors, ranging from biotechnology, education, nursing, theatre and music, to psychology, communications and biblical studies. TWU's 16 graduate degree programs include counseling psychology, business, theology, linguistics, and leadership, and interdisciplinary degrees in English, philosophy and history. TWU holds Canada Research Chairs in Dead Sea Scroll Studies, Developmental Genetics and Disease, and Interpretation, Religion & Culture.


Last Updated: 2009-05-04
Author: Laura Ralph