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Designing women: The real topic of ‘Love and sex with robots’

By Kara Slade

I will be the first to admit that I am neither cool nor edgy. Jesus turned me from a mechanical engineer into a moral theologian, and age turned me into a spinster who can’t stay out past 8 p.m. Until quite recently, I never imagined I would end up at an event that was splashed all over the British tabloid press and only moved to London after it had been banned from Malaysia.

But I did.

Just before Christmas, I attended the Second Annual Congress on Love and Sex with Robots at Goldsmiths College of the University of London. Pace some accounts in the popular press, this was a serious academic conference, featuring researchers in computer science, machine ethics, classics, psychology, and more. I was there as a scholar who studies the ways that scientific modernity shapes our lives, but I was also there as a priest.

As it turned out, that was the only way I could make sense of what was going on. I thought I could write a lighthearted article lampooning the foolishness of what happened there, but in the end, I couldn’t. Let me explain.

The idea of human-robot sex has exploded into public consciousness. We may blame the popularity of the HBO series Westworld, in which customers at a futuristic Old West theme park pay to do whatever they want to, or with, robotic characters that are indistinguishable from human beings. It’s a recurrent theme in science fiction, appearing in recent films including Her and Ex Machina, as well as the 1927 Fritz Lang classic Metropolis. For the past two years, however, scholars from various fields have gathered to discuss what they believe is an inevitable future of robotic love.

The scholarly study of robot sex, such as it is, found its first major proponent in David Levy, a chess grand master and artificial-intelligence researcher. His book on the subject, Love and Sex with Robots, was published in 2008, and he served as one of the conference’s keynote speakers. His argument, a mix of technological utopianism and well-meaning humanitarian sentiment, runs approximately as follows:

1. Artificial intelligence research will soon create robots that are, for all practical purposes, indistinguishable from humans.

2. Many people in this world suffer from loneliness and a lack of companionship.

3. Therefore, human beings should be able to (and soon will) fall in love with and marry a robot.

It takes only a little thoughtful attention to see the conflations and confusions in this argument, and possible Christian responses to them are too multifarious to cover completely in this brief essay. Immediately, of course, fundamental questions of theological anthropology spring to mind.

What is a human being? What are the contours of human intimacy? What are sex and marriage for?

These are crucially important matters, and my colleagues at The Living Church and elsewhere in the Anglican world have devoted much study and reflection to them over the years. For now, however, I will follow Emily Dickinson’s injunction to “tell the truth and tell it slant,” in the hope that asking slightly different questions may help the Church as we think about how to respond to this brave new technological problem — that is in reality not very new at all.

My first question arises from my experience in the world of engineering, where I specialized in building mathematical models of aircraft and satellites. Any model — any digitized approximation — of something that exists in the physical world is only ever an approximation. It may be a valid and complex approximation fit for engineering work, or it may be something as crude as the pixelated world of Minecraft (with which many parents are all too familiar). In constructing digital simulations of the real world, however complex, the human builder decides which features are important enough to be simulated, and which are adiaphora. For this reason, I believe that the critical point is not Can a robot love? but What would a human being think is an accurate-enough simulation of a human beloved? And here we enter the world of theology and ethics, of which I am currently a resident.

The utopias (and dystopias) we construct for ourselves may or may not tell us much about the actual future we will inhabit, but they can do significant work to unmask the present. They can show us how we understand the world and the shape of our desires. Careful readers of science fiction, of course, understand this. Latent in the idea of human-robot love is the assumption that love is a set of algorithmic transactions that can be quantified, delineated, and programmed into a computer. In this line of thinking, the difference between programming an IBM supercomputer like Deep Blue to play chess and programming a robotic lover is merely a matter of complexity and scale. There may be more rules to human relationships, but once we know what they are, the difficult part of the problem is solved.

This is not a new story. Mathematicians, economists, and computer scientists have been writing about marriage in terms of game theory since the 1960s.[1] The problem of thinking that human relationships can be described by an algorithm is a problem of knowledge. Can mathematics and mechanics descriptively and constructively encompass everything that is?

A second question, which lies within the first, is Why would anyone want to try? Technological hubris is the most obvious answer, what Karl Barth called the “Titanism” that places human beings in the position of being their own saviors.[2] Relational hubris is another answer.

In Levy’s presentation, the language deployed to describe the ideal robotic spouse was inadvertently telling:

All of the following qualities and many more are likely to be achievable in software within a few decades. Your robot will be patient, kind, protective, loving, trusting, truthful, persevering, respectful, uncomplaining, complimentary, pleasant to talk to, and sharing your sense of humor.[3]

Suffice it to say for now that this statement reveals quite a bit about the priorities of the author, and very little about the task of technologically approximating any existing human woman.[4] Here is proof of my earlier point: Behind every simulation is a human being making choices about what to simulate.

Beyond these matters, however, lies a more poignant question that begs for healing as well as critique. Again and again in literature depicting or projecting human-robot love, we encounter the shadow of human beings who are unloved or who consider themselves unlovable. One presentation at the London conference began from the premise of robotic companionship apart from sex, appealing to the problem of isolation in the elderly residents of Japanese nursing homes. Another paper proposed robotic lovers as a solution for the “misfits” of life.[5] As Levy put it, technology can solve the problem of those “who just don’t have a relationship with someone they can love and someone who can love them.”[6]

As a scholar I find the question of technologically approximated love and lovers philosophically infuriating. But as a priest, as a friend, as family to some by nature and many more by the grace of baptism, I would like to suggest that critique of this phenomenon cannot be separated from honest engagement with the problem of alienation and isolation that is at once a story as ancient as human culture and newly pressing in this age we call modernity. Christians can, and should, engage critically with the proponents of technological hubris and progressive utopias. But we cannot do so without also addressing the ache behind the utopia, the quotidian dream of no longer being lonely.

A Christian witness against robotic caregivers must include caregiving for the sick and the forgotten. A Christian witness against robotic lovers must include friendship in community that tells a different story about intimacy that is not delineated and determined by sexual acts. And as my advisor Willie Jennings often tells his students, a Christian witness that rightly calls into question our fallen and twisted desires must also show us how to love.

And here, mechanics and mathematics cannot go. Here is the territory of daily miracle, of unexpected wonder, and of profligate gift.

The Rev. Dr. Kara N. Slade is a PhD candidate in theology and ethics at Duke University. A former specialist in the dynamics of nonlinear and complex systems, she earned the BSE, MS, and PhD in mechanical engineering and materials science at Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering, and served on the faculty there, before joining NASA as a research engineer. Ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church, she currently serves as pastoral associate in the Anglican Episcopal House of Studies at Duke Divinity School.

[divider]Footnotes[/divider]

[1] I am grateful to my Duke Divinity School colleague Amy Laura Hall for alerting me to this surprisingly voluminous body of literature. The “stable marriage problem” was initially described by David Gale and Lloyd Shapley in 1962. See their paper “College Admissions and the Stability of Marriage,” American Mathematical Monthly 69 (1962), pp. 9–14.) The mathematically interested or terminally bored can search under “Gale-Shapley algorithm” for more details.

[2] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1: The Doctrine of Reconciliation (Hendrickson Publishers, 2010), pp. 460ff.

[3] David Levy, “Why Not Marry a Robot?,” presented at the Second Annual Congress on Love and Sex with Robots.

[4] While writing in this field gestures toward both male and female robotic lovers, the predominant assumption is clearly centered on the idea of a robotic woman.

[5] Martine Mussies and Emiel Maliepaard, “The Cyborg Mermaid, or, How Techne Can Help the Misfits Fit In,” presented at the Second Annual Congress on Love and Sex with Robots.

[6] Matthew Dunn, “Love and Sex with Robots conference cancelled for fear people would have sex with robots,” news.com.au (Oct. 26, 2015).

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