Leiden Psychology Blog

What if robots could fall in love?

What if robots could fall in love? Photo mariskakret.com

What would it mean if the perfect robot woman could fall in love with her owner? What consequences do those sorts of emotions have for human beings… and robots?

Robots

When we think of robots, emotions are probably not the first thing to spring to mind. In addition to robots that operate in factories, we increasingly see robots in other areas of our society. We have robot vacuum cleaners and robots in the kitchen, for instance, and it probably won’t be long before robot cars will be a common sight on our roads. Another example is the sex and love robot designed to provide company for and meet the needs of lonely men. Unlike real women, these robots are always in the mood… and always have smooth legs. Is sex a chore that can be taken care of by a machine? And what about love? Can loving a robot be a substitute for loving a human being? And where does mutual love fit in, then?

Emotions

In an earlier blog (in Dutch), I wrote about how difficult it is to give robots emotions, empathy, or a moral consciousness. It is relatively easy, and nothing new, to make robots that can express emotions. Maybe you remember tamagotchis, the immensely popular robot pets of the 1990s, that could be hungry, fall ill, or even die… which, to speak from experience, was pretty devastating. Robot dolls that can laugh and cry have also been popular toys for decades now. But human beings have not yet succeeded in making robots feel emotions. And yet it is important to think about the possible consequences of a development of this kind. Given that there is a great deal of interest in sentient robots, both among the public at large and potential buyers, and among designers and scientists, the chances are high that this venture will succeed – to some extent or other – in the future.

Being in love

Let’s jump forward to a time when robots can fall in love, just like us. What does being in love actually mean? Certainly sexual attraction plays a major role, but there is much more to being in love: butterflies in your stomach, daydreaming, the desire to look after the other person and caress them, and a whole palette of emotions such as happiness, optimism, and excitement that can rapidly change to, and alternate with, uncertainty, jealousy, and despair. If robots are capable of all this, can not only express but genuinely feel these emotions, then they will try to seduce the person they love, like the sensuous Ava in the film Ex Machina - and then I can easily understand why Caleb falls completely under her spell.

Jealous of a robot

If a super-intelligent system is also sentient and can fall in love, then it will quickly master the art of seduction. I’m trying to imagine how I would feel if an attractive and sensitive robot woman tried to lure away my beloved. Could I be jealous of a robot? Even writing this makes me seethe with jealousy! So yes. That was a pretty simple thought experiment! But it’s also completely logical. Human beings have a social brain. That means that a large part of our brain is geared for getting along with others and functioning well in a group. This has become pretty extreme in the course of evolution, since we see faces in clouds, discern bodies in the shadows of trees, hear emotion in music and see it in paintings, immediately associate the smell of freshly baked cakes with grandma, and taste love if that ingredient has gone into making our food. So being jealous of a robot isn’t that complex. And being seduced by a besotted robot is, well… a piece of cake.

Sell like hot cakes

So, my expectation is that robots in love will be pretty successful at seduction. Until now, as far as I know, the only sexbots on the market are female. So we can expect that when scientists do succeed in creating robots with human characteristics such as emotions, the first models of those will be female too… and like every new generation of smartphone, they’ll sell like hot cakes. Watch this space …

Read an extended version of this blog with scenario's on Mariska's personal website (in Dutch)

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