Have you ever stared lovingly at your phone as you saw a text from a loved one or a cute kitten/puppy/baby video? Us too. This doesn’t mean you’re in love with phone of course, but rather that you love the content on your phone (although the way we treat our phones and bring it everywhere resembles a relationship, right?). This man went a step further with his love for technology: he married a hologram resembling his favorite animated character. Another man married a robot he built himself. Because of the large gender gaps in China, this marriage was very convenient for him, as he ‘didn’t have to deal with in-laws’ and could save money on food, electricity or a house all at once.
There are way more artificial relationship stories like these, and they all have one thing in common; they all received wide-spread media attention and all sorts of negative remarks and disapproval. If you stop and think about it, we should not disapprove of artificial relationships, but embrace them. Artificial relationships have a lot of negative connotations, but are these actually valid? In this article, we will debunk some common myths about artificial relationships.
Artificial love is not real
When thinking about artificial relationships, an obvious thing comes to mind. Artificial love is not real, because it is not love between humans, it is a man-made piece of technology and technology does not have emotions. Let’s adress the fact that it is not love between humans. We know that humans are capable of loving many beings and inanimate objects, that will never reciprocate the same love, such as pets, cars, the Eiffel Tower, or even chandeliers. Why not AIs? Robots, but also sophisticated chatbots, have a human-like feel, which causes humans to ascribe feelings to them, also known as anthropomorphism. We also do this to our pets, we love them even more because we (think) we see them reacting with emotions to us. This builds a real bond between the user and the AI, and we even tend to trust them more for it. This is thus a good basis to develop romantic feelings as well.
Biologically, it is not a very unusual phenomenon to fall in love with a AI. When we look at how people fall in love and characteristics of love scientifically, it becomes clear that falling in love with a AI is the same process as with humans. Humans fall choose a partner that shares similar world views, we want to feel like we are made for each other. AIs are programmable, and therefore fully personalizable. So, if we find a AI that responds to our needs, wants and shares the same values and interests as us, it will be just like falling in love with another human. When we can make AIs that can complement us, we will be able to fall in love with them. If the relationship is intrinsically valuable and is an addition to someones life, it is real.
Lastly, we want to address the general view of love. Until the 1970’s, homosexual relationships were considered a psychiatric disease and not equal to heterosexual relationships. A lot of countries today are not accepting of homosexual relationships and forbid same-sex marriage. People have decided for others what is real and what is not – this has only brought us hate and misery. There are records of homosexual relationships as far back as 2400 B.C., so saying these relationships are not real or do not exist is just ignorant. We strongly feel that all forms of love should be recognized and accepted. Why would one form of love be better than another? The first (real) marriage between humans and robots is expected to happen in 2050, so sit back and accept!
Artificial partners make people selfish
Another widespread belief is that artificial partners make people narcissistic and reduce their capacity for empathy. The argument goes that as artificial partners are programmed to please their humans, humans become increasingly self-absorbed and unable to compromise with others. Oftentimes, human relationships are portrayed as the opposite of artificial relationships: selfless and giving. However, when we look closer at human relationships, we actually find that there is a major selfish component to them. Against the common belief that opposites attract, research has shown that partners are selected based on similarity. We tend to choose our partners based on how well they agree with us; share the same values, interests and worldviews. In that sense, artificial relationships are not that different from human relationships. Bonding between humans follows the same selfish criteria and mechanism as bonding with artificial partners: People bond with partners who fulfill their needs and make them feel good.
Besides, artificial partners can have positive effects on individuals and prevent harm. Let’s have a look at who would be attracted to artificial relationships. Oftentimes, these would be individuals who are extremely introverted, socially awkward or in other ways deviate from the norm. These people who would otherwise stay alone for long periods or even for the rest of their lives, get the chance to practice and find love digitally. Instead of acting out their resentment, or feeling lonely and insecure, these individuals can feel cared for, calm and supported. Hence, the concern that artificial relationships always make people selfish is not supported. Critics underestimate the value an artificial relationship can bring to a person and society. Artificial relationships can change individuals for the better, making them more balanced and hopeful individuals when they would have otherwise developed into social outcasts or withdrawn from the society completely.
After all, the question remains whether being in a human relationship brings out different behaviors than being in an artificial relationship. The answer to that question depends, like in traditional relationships, on the relationship and the individual. Like in toxic human relationships, an unhealthy artificial relationship can cause harm. Similarly, a healthy artificial relationship can encourage people and make them more optimistic and assertive in life.
Real relationships are always better than artificial ones
Yes, the pandemic has shown that touch starvation is a real thing, and a lot of us crave human intimacy in the form of touch. A heart-breaking video shows an elderly woman tightly hugging a reporter after a long time of going without any touch. Relationships with other humans will always be very important, and it is very unlikely all relationships can be replaced with AI. Most people will always have a craving for human touch, but there are people who don’t value this as high. For instance, people who experience touch aversion due to trauma. Or, touch-averse asexual romantics. An AI will never need touch, and might therefore in ways be better for this people than a human who does.
This doesn’t mean we can’t get satisfaction out of touching an AI, an embodied one, that is. There are already so many robots designed for touch, such as the PARO seal, a robot-cat for people with dementia, and even a robot that is a carrier for touch in a long distance relationship. An expert in the before linked article argues that oxytocin is released when pressure is applied to the skin, but it is rather indifferent to where the touch comes from. Oxytocin, also known as the hugging hormone, is the mediator of stress, social interaction and wellbeing. This is also an explanation on why weighted blankets are so popular. There is little research on oxytocin release after hugging a robot, but there are promising results suggesting touching a robot is beneficial for communication. Even for people that need touch in a relationship, an embodied AI can fulfill their needs.
Onto the emotional part of a relationship. A common argument is that AIs cannot fulfill our emotional needs and give depth to a relationship. For now, this may be the case, as the chat technology is simply not sophisticated enough. For this however, we circle back to the argument that while this may not be enough for most people, it might be for those who find human connection far too complicated. For them, an AI could provide an alternative to feel understood, or practice with romantic or even platonic connection. AI was created to be an extension of human life, a tool, not a replacement. It is there to help us, so people can practice with love before moving on to human connection. In this case, some relationship would be better than none, or a relationship with a human without understanding.
The great thing about AI is that it is customizable. By creating these ‘love AIs’, we can set a real example of what a healthy relationship should look like. Unfortunately, there are a lot of abusive relationships, resulting in 113 thousand cases of structural partner abuse in the Netherlands, not even counting other forms of domestic abuse. More importantly, it is very hard to break out of this cycle of abuse, and although not inevitable, sometimes abuse lasts for generations. It is difficult to find a healthy relationship if you have never seen an example of one. With relationship AIs, it is possible to show what a healthy relationship should look like. Again, this might be temporary by helping the user to then go on and find a suitable human partner. But if the AI is satisfactory enough, a long-term relationship is not out of the question. After all, a healthy relationship with an AI is better than an abusive one with a human.
Artificial partners prevent us from finding a human partner
Another concern is that artificial relationships prevent individuals from being in a relationship with other humans. As interacting with the algorithm is easier and more rewarding than engaging in complex human relationships, people will prefer their artificial partners over interacting with humans and the real world. However, for that to happen, the algorithm needs to be extremely refined, creating a level of connection and depth that most algorithms currently are far away from. For an artificial partner to replace human relationships, the algorithm needs to fulfill all needs of the human. Presently, however, the algorithms of chatbots are often one-dimensional and lack the depth that many individuals long for in an intimate relationship. For the majority of people, artificial relationships are therefore one-sided and artificial partners temporary.
As we’re the ones creating the AI, we can prevent users from becoming fully dependent on the AI and encourage them to go outside and speak to others as well. Besides, we are talking about relationships with AI for people who need them, there will always be people who prefer having a relationship with another human. We cannot reproduce with an AI, unless we consider sperm donations or surrogates, so there will always be human-human families. However, would it be so bad if the user becomes dependent on the AI for love? We become dependent on our partners for romantic love, but this does not mean we only need them, we keep a full social circle consisting of friends and family as well.
However, there exists a popular belief that individuals cannot distinguish between the digital and real world anymore once they engage in an artificial relationship. Although the virtual relationship becomes an important part of their life, people clearly draw a line between reality and their romantic chatbots, and do not prioritize them over their responsibilities and human relationships. So why not accept artificial relationships when mostly, they are temporary anyways and offer individuals practice in love and trust? As artificial partners do not judge, individuals can be more vulnerable and the threshold is lower than reaching out to other humans. Also, as algorithms have not reached the state yet where they are indistinguishable from humans, individuals are likely to move on, and potentially find a human partner afterwards with their new gained confidence and social skills.
But what about the people who decide to stay with their artificial partners? Those who decide to marry them like in the case of Akihiko Kondo and his wife and online character Hatsune Miku? Observing the way he talks about his wife and treats her, it is hard to believe that his feelings for her are not real or should be different from others who are in love with a human.
For many it seems odd to be in love with an object that cannot reciprocate love. In the Western world, artificial partners are perceived as dead objects and distinct from humans. This belief, like many other preconceptions we have, stems from cultural and religious influences, such as the ancient Greeks. The ancient Greeks were animistic as they believed that spirits could be found in natural features such as streams, but strictly separated humans from nature, and set humans above animals and objects. In Abrahamic religions, humans are seen as God’s highest creation and the only entities with immortal souls. While for ancient Israelites, assigning excessive value to objects and idol worship was prohibited by the Ten Commandments.
These philosophical and religious traditions, however, stand in contrast to other cultures’ animism such as Shinto in Japan. Shinto is an animism that assigns spirits (kami) to humans as well as animals, natural places like mountains, and ordinary objects such as pencils. Or as Bungen Oi, the Buddhist head priest of a temple offering funerals for artificial companion dogs, once said: “All things have a bit of soul.” From this point of view, no clear distinction exists between objects, animals and humans,making a marriage between an online character and a human seem not so strange after all.
We do not seem to have accepted that love is a spectrum. Many still struggle with accepting open, asexual or homosexual relationships and consider them as lacking and incomplete. Relationships who do not follow the cultural norm often receive rejection – how can we justify that rejection? As diverse as humans are, they crave and expect different things from relationships.
Lastly, if a person finds fulfillment in their artificial partner, why should they be with a human partner? In what position are we to think that we know better and judge over how someone has to live their life? The variety of human experiences and conditions is limitless and so are the boundaries of human love.
In short, we see artificial relationships as an extension of love rather than a replacement of human relationships. Love is extremely personal and can have many forms influenced by individuals’ past experiences, their current physical and psychological state, and cultural environment. There are several psychological and societal benefits which can result from healthy relationships with artificial partners. The dystopian future where humans completely turn away from human connection for the sake of being absorbed in technology, is far from reality. Rather, artificial relationships offer an environment to explore and practice love and remain short-term for most individuals.
Even though you might not see yourself with a AI in the future, think about individuals who would have a lot to gain from a relationship with a AI, such as people who have a hard time finding or connecting with a human partner. We call for rethinking our ideas about love and staying open-minded when encountering unusual forms of love. Instead of reacting to the first impulse and rejecting what is unknown, pause, and think about where your beliefs come from and how realistic they actually are.