The dangers of artificial companionship

Lux Alpstraum at Undark argues against “Our Irrational Fear of Sexbots”:

When most people envision a world where human partners are abandoned in favor of robots, the robots they picture tend to be reasonably good approximations of flesh-and-blood humans. The sexbots of “Westworld” are effectively just humans who can be programmed and controlled by the park’s operators.

…What most of us want isn’t an intimate relationship with a sentient Roomba, but a relationship with a being who closely approximates all the good parts of sex and love with a human — minus the messiness that comes with, well, sex and love with a human. Yet a robot capable not just of passing a Turing test but of feeling like a human partner in the most intimate of settings isn’t likely to be built any time soon. True AI is still a long ways off. Even if we assume that sexbot lovers will feel content with Alexa-level conversations, robots that not only look and feel real but also autonomously move with the grace and dexterity of a human aren’t within the realm of current, or near future, tech.

I have to admit I didn’t know that angst about sexbots was a thing, but given the success and acclaim of Westworld, not to mention other AI movies like Ex Machina and Her, it seems kind of inevitable.  I do think Alpstraum is right that realistic sex robots are not anything we’re going to have to worry about in the next few years.  Anything feasible in the short term, as Alpstaum mentions, remains firmly in the Uncanny Valley, the space where something that resembles humanity is just close enough to be creepy but not convincing.

That said, I do think the long term concern about sexbots is valid.  They do have the potential to disrupt normal human relationships.  But I’m going to broaden it to a long term concern about artificial companionship overall, not just involving sex, but friendship and social interactions of any kind.  It is worth noting the positive aspects of this for people needing caretakers such as the elderly or infirm, or for those who are just lonely.  But there is a danger.

Imagine a world where you are surrounded by entities that take care of you, do tasks for you, keep you company, laugh at all your jokes, pay attention to you whenever you want attention and go away when you don’t want it, and just all around make you the center of their world.  It seems like it would be extremely easy to fall into a routine where these entities, these artificial humans, become your entire sphere of interaction.

Now imagine how jarring it might be when you encounter an actual other human being, one with their own point of view, their own unfunny jokes, their own ego, their own selfish desires, and basically their own social agenda.  Is it that hard to imagine that many humans might prefer being with the first group?

Science fiction has looked at this many times.  An early example is Isaac Asimov’s The Naked Sun about a planet where humans are outnumbered 10,000 to one by their servant androids, where people live alone on vast estates with their androids, and where actual face to face interaction between humans is so rare that it has become dirty and taboo.  Another is Charles Stross’ Saturn’s Children, where humanity’s social and reproductive urges are so catered to by robots, that the humans end up going extinct, leaving behind a robot civilization that worships the memory of “the makers”.

Now, I doubt that humanity would ever go completely extinct because of this.  For one thing, we’re talking about it, as the Undark article demonstrates, which means that it’s entering our public consciousness as a concern, increasing the chances that we will eventually take steps to avoid that scenario.  And I suspect there would always be a portion of humanity that values the old ways enough to reject sexbots and other forms of artificial companionship.

But it’s still easy to see it leading to the overall human population crashing to some small portion of what it is today.  A civilization where real humans are vastly outnumbered by artificial engineered entities seems like a plausible scenario.  And that’s before considering that the line between evolved humans and engineered ones will likely be blurred as genetic manipulation and other forms of biological engineering eventually merge with machine engineering, leading to humans first being enhanced, then later copied and perpetuated.

So, there is a danger.  I don’t think the solution is to react as conservatives currently are, with talk of prohibitions.  A world with a much smaller human population isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  (Although it’s interesting to think about how this could lead to artificial intelligence being taboo as imagined by Frank Herbert in his Dune universe.)  But we should be aware of how artificial humans, when we get to the point that we can create them, might change us.

11 thoughts on “The dangers of artificial companionship

  1. From what I’ve heard about sexbots so far, it sounds like they’re basically the next generation of blow-up dolls. I guess they appeal to a certain niche market, but I don’t see this really catching on. Not in the near future at least.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I can’t really imagine the Naked Sun scenario happening to individuals, unless people are just being brought up in tanks and raised by robots such that they almost never have contact with another human. More likely would be increasingly isolated family groups, like clans with their own territories – where the only regular direct contact between humans of different clans would be in the form of genetic material transferred between them to avoid inbreeding, and maybe an occasional festival/annual celebration.

    That almost feels human, almost like some high tech version of how we lived for hundreds of thousands of years before sedentary societies.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s an interesting idea. And you’re right, it would almost be a return to traditional pre-civilized life. Although over long periods, it might lead to different groups evolving in different directions, which makes me think of the Morlocks and Eloi from ‘The Time Machine’.


  3. As soon as I started reading I wondered if you’d mention The Naked Sun and The Caves of Steel.

    One thing about those was that the Spacers communicated with each other plenty. They just couldn’t abide physical presence. Odors! Touching! Horrors!

    For years I’ve been looking at those massive multiplayer online games in terms of their evolution from video games of old. It used to be one person would play alone for hours and hours. It was hugely isolating.

    Now groups of people form teams, chat and plan, and explore virtual worlds together. Doesn’t interest me, but I can see the attraction. The thing I’m noticing is the sense of community. MMORPGs are not isolating. They can be freeing.

    I can see us achieving some of the physical isolation, but not the social. And I agree with the comment about family groups. Or small communities of like-minded individuals. Humans are social creatures, and we band together the moment the baker wants meat or the butcher wants bread.

    As for sexbots, meh, whatever. We apply new technology to pornography instantly, and it’s a billion-dollar industry. The Japanese are already on the case. It’s pretty inevitable.

    Here’s the really ugly question about sexbot and virtual reality porn: What about pedophiles, sadists, rapists? Do we feed those appetites in a way no humans are harmed? Would doing so prevent them from acting against real humans, or would it incite them?

    There is some evidence the prevalence of internet porn has reduced rape rates. OTOH, there is also some evidence it’s really messing up the minds of some young men, giving them wildly incorrect ideas about reality.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Definitely we’re a social species. But our instincts can be hijacked. Sometimes that a good thing, such as when we feel brotherly (or sisterly) love among non-relatives. The band of brothers is basically a hijacking of our instincts in prehistoric times that we directed at our own clan. Birth control is another where we actually satisfy the innate urges while frustrating the reason those urges were naturally selected.

      The question is whether artificial humans, of the Westworld variety, could so hijack our social instincts as to give us the benefits of social interactions without the costs. And what might that do to us?

      “As for sexbots, meh, whatever. We apply new technology to pornography instantly, and it’s a billion-dollar industry. ”
      Haha! Too true.

      On pedophiles, sadists, and rapists, I think I’d want that studied very carefully. If it does take care of the urge and actually reduces the harm to actual people, I’d totally be in favor of them getting the release. But my concern is that it might actually allow them to fantasize and work out plans before graduating to the real thing. Along those lines, it’s very interesting that internet porn is associated with a reduction in rape cases.


      1. “The question is whether artificial humans, of the Westworld variety, could so hijack our social instincts as to give us the benefits of social interactions without the costs. And what might that do to us?”

        I suspect, as with all big technological advancements, there will be terrible costs and wonderful benefits. Those it hurts will hate it; those it helps will love it. These things always have two-edges. (And many predictions dire and wonderful.)

        To the extent the question is: will sexbots somehow make us worse in nature as a species, I’m not sure we have that far to fall. I’m not sure what we have to lose, really.

        As far as more dire predictions, remember Jurassic Park. “Life finds a way.” Humanity is far too aggressive to die out because of sex toys. If anything, it’ll just weed out the easily distracted. Evolution in action.

        I mean, if someone is that easily waylaid by sex toys, do you really want them in the gene pool?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I don’t think it would lead to extinction. But it might radically change the way humanity lives. Of course, the way we live seems guaranteed to change anyway. A hunter gatherer from 20,000 years ago might find the way we live today incomprehensible. I suspect we might find the way people living 200 years from now equally perplexing.

          Another possibility is that we may invent ways of reproducing that don’t require actual sex between humans (leaving us free to have all the sex we want with hyper attractive pseudo-humans). The other is that we reach a point where everyone lives as long as they’d like to, and reproduction isn’t as much of a thing as it used to be.

          Liked by 1 person

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