Via FuturePundit (http://www.futurepundit.com/archives/004854.html), we've got this Spiegel article on one David Levy (http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,522919,00.html) who believes that "Robots will be hugely attractive to humans as companions because of their many talents, senses and capabilities. ... love and sex with robots on a grand scale are inevitable."
To his credit, FuturePundit (Randall Parker) thinks to ask:
But will robots find *us* attractive as companions?
First, let's parse the gender dynamics here. Despite the obligatory egalitarian language ("lover", "partner", "malebots and fembots", etc.), the robots described in the Spiegel article are exclusively female:
Mimicking human appearance seems to be the least of the challenges. Two years ago, Japanese robot expert Hiroshi Ishiguro unveiled his "Repliee Q1" robot. The awkward name is misleading. Ishiguro's creation can easily pass as the first robot woman in human history. Thanks to 42 actuators driven by compressed air, the gynoid can "turn and react in a humanlike way," says Levy. "Repliee Q1 can flutter her eyelids, she appears to breathe, she can move her hands just like a human, (and) she is responsive to human touch...," he adds enthusiastically.
The article continues: "Much more difficult than external traits, however, will be the challenging of breathing something approaching a soul into the robots." (Can you say "duh"?)
Absent from the Spiegel article is any sense of what might make a robot a desirable "partner" (i.e. female partner for a heterosexual male human) beyond the characteristics that make a very good sex doll. And conversely, there's no reflection on what might make a male relationship partner (whether heterosexual or homosexual, human or robotic) more desirable than a vibrator or a dildo.
Asimov's masterpiece "The Caves of Steel" deals with human/robot relationships in a much deeper way. I think there's a wonderful homoerotic undercurrent between Lije Bailey (who, in one scene, catches himself looking at his robot partner's private parts in the shower) and R. Daneel Olivaw (who insists on addressing Bailey as "partner Elijah"). But that's a subject for another post.
I could go on into a long digression about the use and connotations of the sex-specific words "fembot" and "gynoid". (Why are "robots" presumed to be male by default, and why, when they're not, is their function presumed to be sexual?) But I want to get right to the point of this post, which is that "robot" etymologically means "slave".
To even find the question of whether a robot could be an "ideal partner" meaningful, you must first be thinking in terms that put you in the role of a shopper or a consumer. And truth be told, we all do this when we are "shopping" for partners; we'd like to be with someone who's the right combination of age, gender, physical and personality traits, and so on. Internet-based dating sites (and, more broadly, social networking sites) automate this process for us. But in the end, those sites can only deliver one thing: real people. People with needs and expectations of their own.
And here's where David Levy's mindset veers off in another direction. Because he's thinking only in terms of "how can I satisfy my own needs?" He's not thinking about relationships between equals - relationships that force us to ask the more inportant question, "What can I give?"
[Note: This will hopefully be the first of several posts on the general theme of humas, robots, and relationships. Stay tuned.]