Akihiko Kondo, a Japanese man, got married with his lovely wife Hatsune Miku. On a wedding ceremony with 40 guests they spoke out their vows, sang a song together and declared the love to each other. Miku is always there for Akihiko, whenever he wants her to be. She wakes him up in the morning, she asks him about his day and is always interested in his feelings. He does never have to worry that she will leave him or cheat and he can always be himself around her, she doesn’t judge. And the best thing is, she is available for everybody! No more worries about finding your perfect wife. For only 1400 euros she is all yours. How great is that?
There is just one thing; Akihiko cannot touch her. They will never have children.
Miku is a hologram of an anime character. She lives within a glass box inside his house.
The first time I came upon this story, I was a bit shocked. Why would a man of flesh and blood fall so deeply for an artificially made device? I was skeptical and instantly there were all kind of horror scenarios playing inside my head. A future where everybody is inside their own home on their own island with their own robot spouse, human-human contact does no longer exist. Of course this image is extreme. As an artificial intelligence student I know all too well how those horror scenarios about AI, mostly outlined by the media, are often overdone. So that was the start of my journey. What is the truth about these AI love devices? Can it be an addition to society or should we be careful? Proponents argue that these devices are a perfect solution for people who are lonely or dealing with social anxiety and it lets you escape to your imagination. Opponents state that these devices are trained to say exactly what you want to hear which causes you to stay isolated in your own bubble. Either way, I found my truth: these devices are no good for our society, these devices should be prohibited. In the rest of this article I am going to tell you why.
Artificial romance, how does it work?
First, let’s find out how a human being does fall in love with a hologram? This story can be compared with the old myth Pygmalion from the Greek mythology. Pygmalion was a prince from Cyprus, who had no interest in woman at all. He was scared by the sins he had seen them commit. He rather spend his time surrounded by his art. Until one day, when he sculptured his perfect woman. This sculpture was so beautiful and realistic that he fell in love with it. He really wanted his sculpture to come to life, and he confessed this wish when he made offerings at the altar of Aphrodite. She granted his wishes and Pygmalion and his sculpture lived happily ever after. Building your perfect woman is exactly what Gatebox is doing, one of the many developers of loving AI applications. Gatebox is a company that instead of sculptures, develops holograms. For less than 1400 euros you can put a box of glass in your home with a projection of your favorite anime character inside. The character can make movements inside the box and you can communicate with it. She will wake you in the morning, will great you when you get home and you can text with her during the day. The company states that ‘having a character by your side provides emotional support, that you can live your life with the character you love.’’ As you can see in their promotion video below. Founding out about this made me think. Am I able to fall for a hologram of my perfect man? Can this possibly be something for me? Currently I am spending my time on various dating apps like Tinder or Happen. I am a not in a relationship and I like surrendering to these apps to get some sort of romantic attention. Although it is fun to swipe for a while and match with some people, a real conversation or let alone a real life date, has almost never happened. What if this doesn’t change over the years, would I consider dating a hologram of an anime character?
Loving an artificial character or loving yourself?
What really worries me is the way that these applications and devices are designed. As John Sullins, a professor of philosophy at Sonoma State University in California, describes in his article ‘Robots, Love, and Sex: The Ethics of Building a Love Machine’, these applications are trained in a way that they learn from the conversations you have with them. So when you are communicating, the device learns more and more about you, what you like and what opinions you have. It trains itself in giving the answers that you want to hear. So actually, you do not fall for a virtual character or robot, you fall for yourself. Trudy Barber, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies from the University of Portsmoutha, sees this as a narcissistic feature. You only hear the replication of your own opinion and are encouraged to stay in that opinion, to stay in your own opinion bubble.
Next to the fact that you stay in your own opinion bubble, you actually stay alone in your bubble as well. When having a relationship with a robot or application, you get more isolated from other human beings. When a machine is there for you whenever you feel the need for contact, this will not stimulate you to contact friends or family. It lets you drift away from the people that are around you.
Show me that you love me!
Another thing is, that at this time a robot is only able to mimic behavior. A robot is able to walk, is able to see (it can recognize objects from camera footage), is able to hear (it can recognize which music is currently playing), is able to talk, and can have a sense of smell. Perfect examples of robots being used to perform human behaviors. So than we should have the discussion, is love more than behavior? I think it is. As the dictionary already says, love means having an intense feeling of deep affection or having a deep romantic or sexual attachment to someone. This is not just about behavior, but also about intimacy and consciousness. And currently we are not even near the development of robots with human consciousness. In addition a human who wants to be friends with a robot will consistently be disappointed in the level of intimacy possible. According to aforementioned John Sullins this causes us to mistakenly ascribe human qualities to developed robots. This is because the current technology restricts the robot of really ‘having’ these human qualities. As an addition you think the robot has feelings because the current design of such robots is programmed in a way that the robot will manipulate humans that they feel love for the robot.
Is it all bad?
Of course, there are reasons why devices like the hologram from Gatebox are popular. Trudy Barber argues that this way of loving can come as a comfort for people with social anxiety, who encounter a lack of self-confidence or a loss of sense of identity. These AI devices provide a save space where there is no risk of being rejected or misreading social cues. The Otaku, the Japanese outsiders with a preference for anime, are in this way a perfect target audience for companies like Gatebox. This is also the case for people who are very lonely. When you can find comfort with an artificial intelligence device, you can decrease the feeling of loneliness. Over the years Japan has endured so much lonely people that a name has been developed for it, Hikikomori. A concept to describe adolescents or adults who withdraw from society and seek extreme degrees of isolation and confinement. I can understand that when someone finds it difficult to step outside his or her comfort zone, a hologram from Gatebox comes as the perfect solution. But why do we need to fulfill these needs with technology? Instead of a perfect solution isn’t it better to see it as the most easy solution? Shouldn’t we help people with their fears and help them to find that safe space with other human beings instead? And as we saw with the isolation argument before, is it also possible that this will ultimately lead to more loneliness?
‘’You can allow yourself to imagine that there is someone that truly understands you’’
— Oscar Schwartz
Another argument in favor of these AI developments is that we shouldn’t be caring about the consequences of these relationships or what the robot can and cannot do. We should just accept the fact that love between a robot and a human can be real. That when someone wants to be in a relationship with a robot, we should just let them. Scientists already confirmed that feeling love or affection for a virtual being or robot is a real possibility. What can be seen with pen friend relationships, is that there is no need for you to be able to see or hear the object in order to love it. As David Levy, Computer chess and artificial intelligence expert and author, states: ‘’If the machine acts like it loves its user and these actions are not inappropriate to the situation at hand, then the robot must actually be in love.’’ If we can also assume that a robot is able to behave and think, there is no good reason that it isn’t able to feel or love. In addition, people involved with AI technology know very well that these characters aren’t real human beings. Intimacy with virtual characters can be a way to surrender yourself completely to your screen and your own imagination. Although you are fully aware that the character isn’t human, you can suspend to this disbelief and enter a relationship. Oscar Schwartz formulates this in his article ‘Love in the time of AI: meet the people falling for scripted robots’: ‘’You can allow yourself to imagine that there is someone that truly understands you’’. In a way, I can understand this opinion. But I don’t think this outweighs the fact that these characters can encourage narcissistic features and put you in isolation. Also I am scared that this makes us way too dependent on technology. What if your device crashes? How can you survive that kind of heartbreak?
Not my type of guy..
So coming back to the question, would I consider dating a hologram of an anime character? My answer is No. I like my sculpture to be alive, just like Pygmalion did. I want to stay in touch with people. Human beings who can correct me when I am doing or saying something stupid. Human beings who know from my body language that I’m happy or sad. People who enrich me with their different points of view. People who are conscious and have a human inner self.
Technology should not be used to replace humans. Developers shouldn’t be allowed to design replicates of human beings but should be encouraged to focus on improving interhuman relationships. Students like me should learn the ethics of developing new technology and should be able to recognize and consider the consequences that these developments might bring. Let us invent new technology that instead of replicating or replacing human beings, attributes to human life.
Unfortunately, that brings me back to Tinder. Or maybe I need to step outside my comfort zone myself, and go out. Out of my house, into society. Because I will find my living sculpture. On Tinder, in the bar or in the supermarket. I will.