Illustration by Mary Delaney
How about a virtual girlfriend or boyfriend? Do you even need a real-life partner? These seemingly bizarre questions are already being asked in relationships today.
Long-term partner robot dolls?
For example, a company called Abyss Creations in California is already producing lifelike models of men and women, in all aspects, which also have conversational programming and increasingly lifelike facial expressions. And the business is booming! Apparently a few hundred creations of founder, Matt McMullen, are sold per year, even though one of them will set you back at least $10,000 US. Reviews show that people are allegedly satisfied with their synthetic partners and find the companionship of a synthetic doll sufficiently fills their needs, whatever those needs may be.
But who even needs an actual physical model? On your phone right now, you can get an app which will provide you with a virtual girlfriend to interact with. The same company that makes the robot dolls also makes Harmony, an AI app for your Android phone that presents you with a curvaceous woman that you can dress up how you want and have conversations with. Apparently, you can even craft her personality to have traits such as ‘sexual’, ‘moody’ and ‘intense’. In other words, you can create your own crazy stalker girlfriend for only $20 a year; sounds like a bargain. This is only one of many ‘virtual girlfriend’ apps that you can get.
It’s interesting that Harmony is female only, but you can get the synthetic dolls in either sex. There is surely a whole PhD (not mine) to be researched on this material alone. Why are more males than females apparently happy to entertain a simulated partner? What part of the relationship conundrum are these artificial ones fulfilling? How does all this impact upon sexual identity? And so forth. There’s enough there for several academic conferences.
Even further into what one might call ‘deep space’, a VR company has produced an immersive app to interact with your fake girlfriend in virtual reality. Put on your headset, and there she is rushing into your virtual arms. Enter her virtual apartment and play darts, etc. There are a number of drawbacks with this game, however. The first being she only speaks Chinese currently, so not great outside of China. The second being the fact she looks and is dressed like an over-age school girl, meaning some have already dubbed it as an app for perverts, understandably, although it is readily available on the Steam catalogue. Go figure on that one.
Virtual sex itself is already a thing, as one might expect. Where isn’t sex a thing? Go to any number of X rated sites, pick an avatar and effectively choose your position. Away you go into cybersex land. Some of these will obviously be interactions with other ‘real’ people, but some may not. Who knows, you could be making out with a virtual simulation, or ‘agent’ as they call it in the trade. Sex and porn, the ubiquitous ingredients of our society, invade every segment of it, some might say unfortunately and others not. I’ll leave that to you also.
An abusive relationship with Siri
Moving away from the lewd and the crude, let’s just examine the relationships one can have with say, Siri, or Alexa. Theseartificial intelligences can sort of hold a conversation. You can get them in male and female voices and different accents and languages. Some people just might start talking to these ‘people’ when they are lonely. An excellent movie called ‘Her’ illustrates exactly what might happen when someone falls in love with an AI persona. I won’t spoil the plot, but it’s probably not going to turn out the way you expect. Also, Alexa and Siri are limited and designed to bat off offensive and other similar types of questions. Go on, admit it, you’ve already tried!Anime lovin’In Japan, people can already get married to their favourite anime character in a game called ‘Niizuma Lovely x Cation’. How strange is that? They have an actual ceremony in VR and even simulate kissing their new love. Is it legal? I have no idea, but the participants all seem happy with the result. Considering the number of single people in Japan is reported to be in the region between 40 to 60 percent for both sexes, and that the number of people who are virgins in Japan is around 31 percent (according to The Independent last year), it’s unsurprising to discover that new ways are being found to satisfy the need for companionship, among other things. Who are we to say it’s wrong anyway? Normal is a very moveable beast, especially in the 21st Century.
When/if robots really do take off and become simulations of humans, will they really be just an automaton? Will they have rights like we do? The TV series Humans explored that theme very ably and delves into robot fidelity and robot rights. If these symbiotic human and machine relationships are to prosper, and they will, all manner of questions will arise. Studies will be carried out, and humanity will enter a new phase. Perhaps it will be called the ‘Posthuman Phase’. On the other hand, the series Three of Humans goes the way of all dramatisations of robot incursions into society, with violence and with the robots turning into murderers who want to kill all the humans. Predictable indeed and not necessarily the way things will end up at all. Like many such things, in reality, humans will probably just walk quietly into the new age and be subsumed, just as they have with their smartphones.
The bickering future
With robot or AI love, you may be able to pick a reliable partner, programmed exactly to your needs, who never argues, is always compliant and life will be sweet. Or will it? The ups and downs of relationships, the bickering and the little petty squabbles are also an important part of relationships. The unpredictability of humans, in general, is part and parcel of what makes life interesting and sometimes too much so. Maybe in the future people will be able to pick the ‘bickering’ version or the ‘argumentative’ version – the ‘non-compliance’ version. What we don’t want to hear are stories of domestic violence by robots like, “I was abused by my AI boyfriend or girlfriend”, or even the other way around: “Crazed woman abused and humiliated her robot lover”. Surely the more human that they become, the more illogical and capricious AI personalities might get.
The logical android that is often portrayed in films is perhaps not what we want, and then again, do we want to replicate ourselves totally and mimic the crazy mix of emotions that humans portray? And if we do create an artificial person, can we then say it’s not real? Can we terminate its life if we get fed up with it? These and many more ethical questions will have to be answered. The truth is that we don’t know and really, who does? The sky is the limit with AI loving and, in the future, it probably is.