It’s a slow news day, apparently, and so Slate has graced us with a truly bewildering piece about how people will fall in love with and marry robots in the near future (like, the next 50 years), because human interaction has gotten too damned hard. Robots, author Daniel H. Wilson tells us, will offer humans (men, it is heavily implied, though there is a token mention of women) simpler, more old-fashioned interaction, that will bring relief to “romantics” wearied by “impersonal, digitized relationships” with other humans.
What a pack of nonsense.
I want to put aside the fact that the estimates on how long it will take us to create realistic human-like robots, that are commonly put out there for public consumption, are wildly exaggerated. What I am mostly curious about is why Wilson thinks it’s romantics who will be drawn to robots the most, and why it is the supposed degradation of human interaction that makes robots necessary.
Let’s be honest about what the real attraction of an android would be — the lack of personal autonomy, social recognition or legal rights. Our hypothetical robot can be subjected to the most extreme degree of sexual abuse and violence, and none of it will be illegal. A robot won’t complain, won’t run away; it will just submit to more. If it is damaged beyond repair, it will be thrown out with the trash, and no one will ask any questions.
Speaking of human interaction, it will not be necessary to actually maintain one’s relationship with a robot, the way you have to do with other people. You can turn off your robot and put it in a closet for a few months. You can ignore it completely for long periods of time, with absolutely no adverse consequences. There will be no mutuality to the interaction — whenever it takes place, it will be on the owner’s terms.
A robot won’t get fat, or sick, or old. It will, of course, become obsolete — but at that point, the owner will simply trade it in for a new model, and no one will give him dirty looks over it.
A robot won’t have any thoughts, desires or opinions of its own. It won’t expect an explanation if its owner is late to dinner or doesn’t come home at all. It won’t have to be consulted if the owner wants to mortgage the house to invest in some harebrained scheme.
Robots cannot experience things or cognitively process sensory input the way humans do. That means, giving sexual satisfaction to one’s partner simply won’t be an issue if that partner is a robot. Those who own robots will finally be free to act as selfish and inconsiderate in bed as they like without the robot later giving them the cold shoulder. Narcissists will finally be able to enact “great sex” according to their own very narrow view (so narrow, in fact, that it simply equates “great sex” with marathon pumping).
The problem with human interaction isn’t that it is, as Wilson calls it, “impersonal” or “digitized” — it’s that it’s complicated. Interacting with another human being, with his or her own personality, thoughts, feelings and habits is way more difficult than with a mirror that merely spews your own input back at you. Another human being won’t always stroke your ego; a robot always will.
That’s what’s going to be the real draw where androids are concerned — the possibility of a relationship where one has no responsibilities towards one’s partner AT ALL, while that partner exists solely to satisfy you in every conceivable way.
There was, no doubt, a time, when this kind of dynamic was thought to be ideal for a proper marriage. But I find it funny how the author — a man, mind you — characterizes that era as “simpler times”. Simpler, really? Simpler for whom?
Nor will I deny that there is a certain minority of men who consider a disposable partner with no autonomy or rights as ideal. I just wouldn’t call them “romantics”.
But what would happen if androids were to be designed to have thoughts, feelings and basic self-awareness? I’d say, if that happens, you probably will be able to marry one, but not to buy one or abuse it with impunity. I simply cannot envision how our society would deny basic human rights to creatures who are human in every way except how they came to exist.
Wilson’s mistake is that he focuses solely on technology, but pays little attention to ethics or sociological issues. Regardless of where the technological process takes us, there will never be a world where you can marry consumer goods. Those two things — marriage and mercantile consumption — are mutually exclusive.
Or maybe I am just not romantic enough.