The future of human-robotic relationships was considered at the Second International Congress on Love and Sex with Robots held in London last December. What might this look like and how far advanced are the related technologies?
Lucile woke, as she had every morning for the last five months, in the strong, warm arms of Roger. As she turned into his chest for a quick snuggle before rising, he started to wake up too, slowly at first, until finally his bright eyes came fully to life and met hers. He kissed her on the forehead.
Their morning routine was always the same. Roger would bring Lucile coffee as she washed and dressed, then made her breakfast. They’d catch up on the news together and discuss their plans for the day.
“We need to go shopping as your parents are coming over for dinner tonight,” Roger reminded her. He never forgot anything. Lucile agreed, although she admitted she was nervous about the evening. “Don’t worry, people tend to love me,” he reassured her.
Hand-in-hand they headed out the front door. Lucile never went anywhere without Roger. She didn’t have to, because it was 2050 and Roger was a humanoid robot who didn’t have anywhere else to be but right by her side for however long she wanted him there.
“Are we so embedded in our technology that this is a natural next step?” Dr Trudy Barber, a senior lecturer at the University of Portsmouth, asked an audience of academics at the Second International Congress on Love and Sex with Robots. The conference moved to London after being banned in Malaysia.
“It is inevitable we will project ourselves,” she continued, “be it our phones or robots, for love and sex.”
The leading expert on the subject and keynote speaker at that distinctly academic conference, David Levy, who authored the 2007 book ‘Love and Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships’, goes further and predicts humans will marry robots by 2050.
Our obsession with human-created companions goes back centuries. Pygmalion fell in love with a statue of his own carving, as told by Roman poet Ovid in 8AD, and Golem, an imaginary humanoid controlled by its creator, from Jewish folklore, goes back to the 16th century and gets revisited time and again in film, theatre and television. Recently, similar motives featured in HBO’s ‘Westworld’ and ‘Humans’ on Channel 4, as well as films such as ‘Ex Machina’ and ‘HER’.
Modern-day depictions of humanoid robots suggest society should be concerned, if not terrified, of their future role and capabilities. However, most experts in the field believe robot companions can greatly benefit sections of society such as the elderly, the lonely and the socially challenged.
To be a true people companion, robots need several things: intelligence, self-awareness – consciousness, even – the ability to understand and respond to emotions, a soft, supple human-like form and full mobility.
Present day equipment isn’t quite there, but how far off it is depends on who you ask.
It is agreed that foundation technologies are already available and in some areas, such as memory, they supersede human capabilities: the simple computer programs designed to simulate an intelligent conversation, known as chatbots, can quickly look up digital responses from a vast online database. When incorporated with speech and image recognition software, cameras and sensors – all off-the-shelf – they form the basis of a humanoid robot brain.
Gadgets such as Amazon’s voice-controlled home assistant Alexa use deep-learning artificial intelligence (AI) to understand demands, such as to dim the lights, while becoming cleverer and more useful the more they are used.
In early 2016, Google’s AlphaGo computer program beat professional and leading Go player Lee Sedol at a championship in South Korea. Go is a complex game in which a player has approximately 250 possible moves per turn, and the player’s thought processes cannot be easily explained or learned, as with chess. Computers have been beating human chess players since the 1990s.
Later in 2016, Google’s Deepmind Technologies deep-learning system proved almost twice as good as any previous image recognition effort at identifying objects such as cats after being shown 10 million images from YouTube videos.
Furthermore, in 2015, computer scientists at the Ransselaer Polytechnic Institute in the US proved self-awareness in a Nao robot using a classic ‘self-awareness test’. The test required the AI to be able to listen and understand a question, hear and identify its own voice and recognise that it is distinct from other robots. It needed to then link that realisation back to the original question to come up with an answer. It succeeded.
This kind of cognitive robotics is creating AI in robots by enabling them to learn from and respond to real-world situations, as opposed to pre-programming specific responses to every conceivable stimulus.
However, there is still a way to go before robots are likely to achieve anything near actual ‘consciousness’.
“One of the big challenges we face is being able to reverse-engineer the human brain,” says futurologist and engineer Ian Pearson.
“But it would only be a couple of years before a major IT lab decided to develop artificial consciousness and succeeded. However, I don’t think we have got labs trying to achieve this at the moment.”
The potential of a humanoid robot for understanding human emotions, experts agree, will be a key factor in a person’s ability to fall in love with a robot.
Promising technologies addressing this need are emerging, the most advanced being the ‘human companion’ robot Pepper, developed by France-based Aldebaran Robotics and sold by Japanese-based SoftBank Robotics Corp.