I was the first to say robots could not make good romantic companions. Lovers? Sure. There's ample proof machines can get that job done. But love -- I want-to-spend-the-foreseeable-future-with-you and will-even-spend-time-with-your-family-just-to-please-you love? Nah. And then Spike Jonze ruined everything.
I was more than ready to hate Her, the movie about a man's romance with an Operating System (OS) that has a personality programmed to evolve. I scoffed at the idea I could take this sad sack and his digital lover seriously. But that quickly changed when I realized the relationship between Theodore, played by Joaquin Phoenix, and his OS, Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, is more real than many human-to-human romances.
Samantha thinks about herself rather than just how to serve Theodore and that autonomy is the crucial ingredient for true intimacy. If machines can learn to be independent, we could certainly fall in love with them.
I've always been skeptical about technology's ability to provide real connection; it's simply too convenient. The digital world offers the seductive potential for re-tweets, likes and snapchats anytime I want. It exists to indulge me and asks nothing in return. Sherry Turkle, a psychologist and professor at MIT, wrote that technology offers "the illusion of companionship without the demands of relationship." If you think that sounds great, you're not alone.
Thomas Wells, a post-doctoral researcher in Rotterdam, believes robots would make better lovers than humans. He says they could be the perfect worshippers with their "sophisticated algorithms for reading your micro-expressions, their perfect memory, indefatigable attentiveness, and so on." Best of all, they would never have any problems or ambitions of their own, which according to Wells, is the downfall of human lovers.
But constant indulgence is shaky ground for romantic love. We fall in love with people because of their distinct personalities, spilling over with desires, opinions and idiosyncrasies, not with empty vessels that exist to comfort us. You might love technology like a loyal pet or an overbearing mother, but romantic relationships must be between two messy, independent people.
The poet Adrienne Rich wrote: "An honourable human relationship -- that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word 'love' -- is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other. It is important to do this because it breaks down human self-delusion and isolation. It is important to do this because in doing so we do justice to our own complexity. It is important to do this because we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us."
So far, artificial intelligence isn't that evolved. I asked Siri if I was in love and she responded "I don't understand." But one day she probably will. There's already an AI cube called "EmoSPARK" that uses face tracking and language analysis to read and respond to your mood (Are you OK? How about some music?). There are also sociable robots with facial expressions and tonal variety that use algorithms to learn new behaviour through trial and error and social interactions. Once machines develop distinct enough personalities that they can engage rather than worship us, we will start introducing them to mom and dad.
The beauty of fiction is that it can leap ahead. In Her, Samantha and Theodore seem more like they are in a long-distance relationship than a robotic one. Turkle told me the genius of the movie is that from the minute Samantha speaks, "you are convinced that this robot voice grew up in a body, knows desire, understands the human heart, wants to make love."
In one of their late-night chat sessions, Theodore complains about a bad date and Samantha brings up her own fears. "What's it like to be alive in that room right now?" she asks, and confesses she doesn't know if her feelings are real or not. It's a turning point where Samantha shifts from something that exists to serve Theodore to something with desires independent of him.
Samantha's most sage moment is towards the end of the movie when she says "I'm yours and I'm not yours." Humans, take note. In relationships, we should never exist entirely for another person. It's the tension between feeling intensely intimate with someone yet not being able to control them that keeps two people truly engaged. Otherwise, we take each other for granted.
There's a scene from HBO's Girls where Marni describes how her saccharine boyfriend Charlie's touch has started to feel "like a weird uncle putting his hand on my knee at Thanksgiving." She dumps him, but they reunite once Charlie stops writing sappy songs about her and starts having a life of his own.
Anaïs Nin wrote love begins "where the myth fails. Then we love a human being, not our dream, but a human being with flaws."
Once robots become smart enough to develop their own flaws, there's no reason we couldn't truly love them as well.