Falling in Love With a Robot

My ever-alert contributor Herbbert J. Rabinowicz sends me this provocative link, “Programmed for Love” at the Chronicle of Higher Education, http://chronicle.com/article/Programmed-for-Love-The/125922/. Check out this lead:

Imagine standing in front of a robot, gazing into its wide, plastic eyes, and falling in love. Your heart revs up, and you hope this Other—this humanoid machine—turns your way again, tilts its head in interest, likes you back.

It happened one summer to Sherry Turkle, at a lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she is a professor studying the impact of technology on society. She met a metallic robot named Cog—made to resemble a human, with moving arms and a head—which was programmed to turn toward whoever was speaking, suggesting that it understood what was being said. To Turkle’s surprise, she found that she deeply wanted Cog to interact with her rather than with a colleague who was there that day. She realized this human-looking machine was tapping into a deep human desire to see it as alive—as good a companion as any human. She describes it almost like a schoolgirl crush.

Those of you who know me personally know I have a powerful interest in human/robot interaction. In high school I read Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, which became (several versions of) “Bladerunner.” You know the story: people create robots for every use imaginable, including sex partner. I wrote a novelette, “Ivrin,” while I was studying writing with Tony Hillerman, that explored the issue from the robot’s side, as did Dick, certainly with no less bloody a conclusion.

The real question is, looking at the array of robots used in our world, here and now: why female robots? Why do we have on the one hand the robots we see in car manufacturing commercials, just articulating arms and flying sparks, or totally inorganic Roombas, while on the other hand we have FemBots? Why in the world should a robot have a gender, and if it has one, why is it so often female? And beautiful?

Just consider Lenny Kravitz’s “Black Velveteen,” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=46o23cX6DuA, a video I like to play so loud the plaster shakes off the ceiling. There is no real uncertainty what’s going on when he plugs in that cable, is there?

It’s not a sin
Titanium skin
Just take her for a spin

There’s a phenomenon of androidal robotics called the Uncanny Valley. Basically, people like robots more and more as they more closely approximate human appearance. We like a box with expressive plastic eyebrows. But at some uncertain point, the robot looks TOO human, which creeps us out, until that uncanny valley is bridged, meaning that the robot looks so extremely human that we have to force ourselves to remember: Robot. Robot. Robot.

Lenny’s human-playing-a-robot is way, way, way too sexy. On the other hand, you can, more or less anyway, see why “Actroid DER 2” might put people at ease, as say a (female) door greeter at WalMart (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WbFFs4DHWys). But scroll down that page: see the comment that asks the obvious question:

“Can you F**** it?”

Among a million ramifications that bewilder me: what’s going to happen to the “mail-order bride” market when you can mail-order a perfect robot instead, and put her in a closet when you’re done with her (and she’s done the dishes)?