Saturday, April 5, 2008

Robot Love

One thing always bothered me about the I Dream of Jeannie television show. Jeannie was this really, really good looking genie—she looked exactly like Barbara Eden—who lived in a bottle that the astronaut Tony Nelson—who looked exactly like a young J. R. Ewing—found on a beach. She called him “Master.” She wanted to do whatever he wanted her to do and quite a few things that he didn’t want. But Tony didn’t want her using her magic skills on his behalf. She obviously loved and adored him. But he kept dating other “normal” and “human” women.

A beautiful woman—wearing skimpy outfits—who wants nothing but to please you—and who has skills to overcome any obstacle to pretty much anything that confronts you—and it takes you several seasons to get around to marrying her.

Tony, Tony, Tony.

Of course, my reaction to this situation must be viewed in the context of puberty rushing up to greet me toward the end of the series’ run. The possibilities inherent in the plot boggled my hormones, not to mention my mind.

I guess that Tony had a more mature view of the situation. I do suspect that his pride had something to do with it—you know, a man wants to make his own way and do his own work. But I also think that he wanted to be careful. Who wants to be in a relationship with someone who is just fulfilling a role, in that case whatever the role is that a genie plays for her master, or who sees it as her duty to serve and please you?

OK, lots of people do. But that’s not the way that mature human beings want to relate to other human beings, particularly those with whom they are going to enter into the state of holy matrimony until death do them part. We want to love each other, to nurture each other, to support each other, to encourage each other, to respect each other, and to complement each other. We don’t want to have a spouse or partner that is programmed to behave a certain way or to be subservient.

So you want to be careful if you have the opportunity to marry a genie, even if she does look like Barbara Eden.

You’d want to be doubly careful about marrying a robot, then, wouldn’t you?

Now that’s a crazy idea, some of you are thinking.

And yet the possibility is being seriously proposed.

In a recent article in Scientific American, writer Charles Q. Choi reported on the opinion of David Levy that marriages between humans and robots are probably only a few decades away. In fact, he believes it to be inevitable. He also doesn’t think it’s a bad thing. “If the alternative is that you are lonely and sad and miserable, is it not better to find a robot that claims to love you and acts like it loves you? Does it really matter, if you’re a happier person?” he asks.

As the article points out, there are a good many people out there who prefer relationships with computers to relationships with people. There are also many people who have developed relationships with people whom they have known only on-line. So perhaps it is not a tremendous stretch to conceive of someone developing a romantic relationship with a robot if, as the article says could happen, robots could be developed that are quite human-like.

I tend in my attitude on this toward the thinking of M.I.T. psychologist Sherry Turkle who is quoted in the article as saying, “If you are lonely but afraid of intimacy, relationships with machines can enable you to be a loner yet never alone, give you the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. There is nothing to celebrate here. To me, the seductiveness of relationships with robots speaks to what we are not getting from people.”

I realize that there are many people who have difficulty developing meaningful human relationships. I also fully recognize that all human relationships, even those between the most well-adjusted of people, are complex and challenging.

Nevertheless, God made us to develop those challenging relationships and to live in the midst of all the ambiguity and difficulty and pain—and all the wonder and mystery and pleasure and reward.

Having a robot for a mate might have some of the same supposed benefits that having a genie as a mate might have. But I just don’t believe that growth and life and love happen when one partner is programmed to be subservient or is just designed to meet the other’s needs. Growth and life and love happen when full human beings relate to one another in and through their full humanity.

So, having a robot as a mate just wouldn’t be right—not even if they can make one that looks like Barbara Eden!

1 comment:

johnj said...

I've been involved in computing as a student, researcher, faculty and now retiree for 45+ years. Artificial Intelligence has promised machines that will be indistinguishable from true intelligence 10-20 years in the future for my entire career. I see from your article that the promise is still being made.

During my 45 years in computing single CPU performance has improved by about a factor of a 1,000,000 while its cost has dropped my a factor of more than 10,000. Better software and faster computers don't make much difference in this pursuit. The answer, as you point out in various ways each Sunday morning, lies elsewhere.