In the Loop

One day even Robot Weddings will be boring

Posted at 1:42 PM on October 22, 2007 by Sanden Totten (6 Comments)

It's not just me . . . a lot of people are thinking about robots these days.

There was this article from the New York Times magazine about humans accidentally assigning emotions to robots who really have none.

Jon Gordon talked about Roomba owners who are becoming emotionally attached to their little floor sucker in a recent episode of Future Tense.

And the icing on the cake . . . *ahem* . . . the wedding cake: this article from MSNBC about sex and love robot style. In it, one researcher gives us about 40 years before our relationships with robots become so intense that we not only take them to the sack . . . we drag them to the alter as well.

Okay, so somewhere out there in our collective unconscious we are all thinking the same thing. But is it really inevitable that we'll be forging human-robot relationships in the next 40 years?

I have my doubts. First, there is a little thing robot aficionados know as the Uncanny Valley. It's a well studied theory that says the closer a robot comes to looking and behaving like a human, the more we like it . . . until a point. When it crosses that point, still seeming real but not quite natural, we are greatly repelled by it. Think of the Frankenstein monster for some context. Also, even the highly specialized social robots have a long way to go before they can tap into some of the most basic aspects of human relationships, like recognizing moods and understanding someone else's perspective.

But people traveling with their Roomba?! Assigning emotions to bots that can barely smile?! I have to admit, there is something going on. I can't help but wonder though, if this isn't a case of wishful thinking. Hearing about all the coverage of Sputnik's big 50 year anniversary, you get the feeling folks back then thought we'd be partying on the moon by 2007. Realistically we are not much closer now than we were then.

But in the meantime, we can enjoy the fact that robots are making their way into our lives. The fact that we can have any relationship with them is pretty neat. And maybe I'll be way off the mark on this. Who knows, maybe my robot wife and I will laugh at this post 40 years from now. If so, I'm sorry I was so naive honey, let's not let it ruin our wonderful . . um, "relationship".

Comments (6)

I think you've really hit the nail on the head here. Human beings are really good at assigning emotions to things that aren't actually showing them (Roombas, cars, cats, etc.), but as soon as something attempts to actually emulate emotions, it just unnatural and freaky. There is something subconscious and extremely difficult (if not impossible) to emulate in a relationship with another human being: even over text, audio-only, or avatar-based internet, we're good at picking up real people vs. machines, because the machines just aren't quite right.

It is fun to think about, though.

And, on the other hand, I know people who have "married" their computer in the same way that a nun considers themselves "married" to Christ: they have sacrificed interpersonal relationships and adjusted their priorities to emphasize the computer over practically all else. So this kind of de facto "marriage" is already going on, and I have no doubt that people will commit themselves to robots in the same way as they commit themselves to all these other hobbies.

Good show last week!

Posted by Robert Fischer | October 22, 2007 2:16 PM

Flipping my Roomba on its back to empty its dirt canister always seemed like a very intimate act...

I haven't given mine a name, though, except occasionally I called it "piece of sh**" when the battery was going south (hey...get your mind out of the gutter).

I tried to find an old Future Tense that I did (like four years ago) where I interviewed an early Roomba owner who had personalized his 'bot, and then talked to the company about the trend. Not surprisingly, they were loving it. (Ironically, the archives of Future Tense only go back about three years, when they switched over to a blog-style web site. Damn.)

That MSNBC article was seriously disturbing, man.

Posted by Jeff Horwich | October 23, 2007 10:54 AM

Funny, my first thought was this *wasn't* so strange considering people's relationships - well some people's relationships - with their cars. (Nod to Robert Fischer, there.)

I honestly think it comes down to us drawn to something and becoming more attached by the act of "tending" to it. We're just imagining how we would feel cared for that way, and to my mind it is less a projection than a reflection.

Nevertheless, I can't wait to revisit that MSNBC article in five years.

Posted by Julia Schrenkler | October 24, 2007 2:46 PM

Let's think of the real reasons to marry a machine: tax breaks and benefits.

It would be like getting all the tax breaks and double benefits of two married people but with only one real person using them.

Marrying a robot is good economic sense. And if you and your life partner *both* marry robots, then it's like you are quadrupling your benefits! Awesome!

Posted by Sanden Totten | October 25, 2007 1:32 PM

Did I miss something? Is there a tax break for marrying a robot?

Posted by Jeff Horwich | October 25, 2007 3:50 PM

Doesn't a person get a tax break when they file as part of a married couple? Maybe I'm off on this.

But you get tax breaks when you have kids right? Maybe that's the key: robot kids. Less hassle because they are programmable and you get to keep more of your money.

Posted by Sanden Totten | October 26, 2007 11:54 AM

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