Robot Relationships

David Levy's dissertation/book, "Love and Sex with Robots," has gathered some media attention recently. The assertion that people will be loving, and (ahem) loving, robots before too long is apparently something of a social shocker, though it should come as no surprise. People are already having sex with life-like dolls, and people already have very strong emotional attachments to man-made objects: their cars, iPods, phones, and so on (and I would argue that, psychologically, this "love" is not so different from the human kind).

The more interesting (though less sensational) questions are social. The unity that comes from the bonding of two humans is a certain thing, though there are certainly many variations on the details. But the thing that is the relationship between human and robot will almost certainly be a qualitatively different thing. While it may (or may not) be a satisfying emotional equivalent, it will allow, provide, and mandate a new set of inputs and outputs, metaphorically and literally. Creative and business partnerships, in addition to personal relationships, will have a new frontier for development in combining the relative strengths of man and machine--as, of course, technology as done for centuries. But this technology revolution is likely to be more intensely social than anything we've seen thus far.

It is easy to dismissively conceive of robots as ambulatory PDAs, but that's a problem with our vision rather that the potential of the thing. Sex is easy to predict, almost banal. It may even be a motivating force behind the development of humanoid robots. But--as always--what will make the world different won't be what people are doing in their bedrooms, but rather what they can do outside of it.