Could human-robot love become a reality?

Research results show that human-robot love could become a reality in the near future.

"Do you take this robot to be your wedded partner, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do you part?”

No, this line didn’t come from a science fiction movie. It’s a phrase that might become commonplace by the year 2050, according to robotics experts. As artificial intelligence advances, the possibility of building relationships, and even falling in love, with robots has become a real possibility.

The divorce rate in the United States is currently at 50 percent, and it is only expected to increase in the coming years. What if we were able to build our perfect partner -- a partner that understands us, shares our interests and values, and satisfies our needs in more ways than one? Welcome to the robot age.

Robo partners: How plausible is the idea?

Professor Adrian Cheok of City University of London and the Imagineering Institute explains to InMyArea (IMA) that once robots become our caregivers, “it’s a very small step after that, that robots will become our friends, our companions and even our lovers, even our spouses. Before 2050, we’ll be able to legally marry robots,” he predicts. In our tech-obsessed day and age, it is not the most far-fetched idea.

Dr. Helen Driscoll who specializes in evolutionary psychology at the University of Sunderland points out that current social norms about sex are very different from what they were 100 years ago; therefore, we have to realize that human-robot relations have the potential to become socially acceptable.

Havas Group, a comprehensive communications company based in Paris, recently conducted a study that found that 27 percent of millennial participants were already open to the idea of dating a robot. The subjects ranged from ages 18 to 34, and 70 percent of the 12,000 interviewed agreed that using smartphones has increased their dissatisfaction with life and weakened human bonds. This most likely causes them to search for different outlets that provide comfort and attention. Robots could provide companionship to those who live by themselves or are no longer with their partner. Generally, Professor Cheok says, “it’s actually quite difficult to find good friends; it’s actually quite difficult to find a lover and a partner. Whereas robots can be programmed to be the kind of friend or the kind of lover that you’d want.”

Mesmer humanoid robots are hyper-realistic [credit: CNBC]

Programming a partner is not as easy as it sounds though, because “there are powerful physiological elements of social cognition and interaction that are difficult to copy in synthetic materials,” says Professor Bertram F. Malle, PhD, of Brown University. As humans, we experience conflict in our relationships because we are flawed. Malle speculates that, “robots will meet some needs too well. People will miss the effort and rewards that come with imperfect, demanding human-human interactions. The unpredictability and uncertainty in human-human interactions are probably part of what keeps us interested and motivated, part of what keeps the social-cognitive, social-emotional systems active.”

Some see the possibility of human-robot relations as a threat. For example, an organization called Campaign Against Sex Robots believes that human-robot relations not only demean women but also decrease human empathy. Dr. Oliver Bendel, from the University of Applied Sciences and Arts in Switzerland, agrees that marriage should be kept between two human beings. He does admit, however, that matrimony between humans and robots could become legal by 2050 due to “public pressure."

The rising frequency of human-robot interaction (HRI) on screen can increase societal susceptibility. Films such as Her, released in 2013 about a sensitive man who falls for an AI operating system, and shows such as Westworld, a sci-fi hit bringing in 3 million viewers, challenge society to keep an open mind about robot partners as a possibility. Although Westworld’s own science adviser, David Eagleman, PhD, of Stanford, believes that “we are not really close to having AI that seems like human.” Professor Cheok notes that, “Famous movies like Her, where you have human-robot love and relationships are basically an elaborate way of storytelling, and stories are predictions of what humans want somehow.”

Is falling in love with a robot “kind of like a form of socially acceptable insanity?” - Her

Jia Jia is China’s famous humanoid robot [credit: Getty Images]

Research shows humans are already becoming attached

The normalization of HRI can partially explain why “research by Reeves and Nass has shown that humans generally treat computers as they might treat other people.” In return, new robots “can interact and cooperate with people as a partner rather than a tool."

Researchers at Toyohashi University of Technology and Kyoto University in Japan conducted a study that ultimately suggested humans empathize with robots. In the study, 15 individuals were shown 56 colored pictures of both human hands and robot hands, in either painful or non-painful scenarios. Their reactions were monitored through electroencephalography, or visual tracings of brain activities. When shown images of a finger about to be cut by a knife, brain responses for the human hand were similar to the responses for a robot hand. The only difference was that the reaction was slightly slower when it came to the robot hand, but at most by 80 milliseconds. Researchers found that delay in reaction could be due to processing time, since hurting a robot hand is not a common scenario.

[credit: Toyohashi University of Technology]

A German study recently came to the same conclusion that humans can care for robots. Volunteers in the study interacted with a robot to complete some simple tasks. The robots were programmed to be either social or machinelike. At the end of the interaction, volunteers could choose to turn the robot off or leave it on. When the tasks were finished, about half of the robots protested being turned off while the other half stayed quiet. When the robot protested its“feelings,” the German researchers found that many would rather leave the robot on, or they took time to contemplate their decision.

When questioned about their hesitation, the participants’ most common response was simply that the robot said it didn’t want to be switched off, so who were they to disagree? The study concluded: “Triggered by the objection, people tend to treat the robot rather as a real person than just a machine by following or at least considering to follow its request to stay switched on.”  

Advanced humanoid robots can fairly reflect accurate body language and expressions. The Science University of Tokyo “developed the most human-like robotic faces (typically resembling a Japanese woman) that incorporate hair, teeth, silicone skin, and a large number of control points.” Waseda University has also made similar advancements. Since robots are looking more human, it makes it more reasonable to treat them like one. Brian Scassellati, PhD, professor of computer science and mechanical engineering at Yale University, concurs, stating “Robots that engage with people are absolutely the future. There's no question that's where robotics is moving."

Humans have been interacting with hyper-realistic robots in films for years. Check out this article to see how we've become emotionally attached to our mechanical counterparts. 

Updated on:

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