In the 2013 film Her, Theodore, a recent divorcee, falls in love with an AI virtual assistant, Samantha. ‘Her’ empathy, perceptiveness, sharp-wit and humanity get Theodore blindly hooked. His head is in the cloud nine until reality hits him like a ton of bricks: Samantha is in the business of soulmating, with a growing clientele.
With algorithms that can quantify love, social-bots and sex robots for romantic partnerships, technologies will have a significant impact on the way humans have traditionally perceived love.
In this article, we try to understand the changing nature of love based on a recent study.
How do you value love? People have different ideas or associations when it comes to the many-splendored thing. For some, love is about finding the perfect match. For others, it is about being with the One; unique and irreplaceable. For a few folks, it’s about commitment– a virtue you adhere to for life.
Definitions vary, but, the inarguable truth of love is timeless. Or is it?
Technology is impacting almost every aspect of our lives including how we experience and perceive the world. “I think it is important to reflect on the impact of technologies on love and on other values for at least two reasons,” said Dr Sven Nyholm, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the Utrecht University and co-author of the study.
“First, sometimes technologies have impacts on our ideals and values without our noticing this until later, at which point we might regret some of those developments.
“Second, our values are always evolving, sometimes more slowly, sometimes more quickly. Understanding this process better can help us achieve self-understanding, and also help us to understand what we can control as well as what we cannot control.”
Imagine assessing love through the lens of traditional value. Then, a robot that can shapeshift into your partner in form and spirit pose a threat to the ‘irreplaceabality’ value: the centrepiece of any relationship.
On the other hand, let’s look at love from the perspective of a traditional value, say, autonomy. Here, an artificial lover that can satisfy the individual’s romantic desires, gives more autonomy to the human, which some might consider a good thing. But, it undermines the need for vulnerability, mutuality, and compromise in our relationships. As Robin William’s character says in GoodWill Hunting, “People call these things imperfections, but they’re not, that’s the good stuff.”
Love In The Times Of AI
Today, we have ‘self-tracking technologies’ to quantify ‘love’. These technologies generate data on various aspects of romantic relationships, and even gamify them. It’s a dangerous trend as more people might lean to measuring the success of love in terms of quantity instead of quality. For instance, technology might give weightage to the ‘number’ of romantic messages, rather than the quality of the embedded sentiment.
Further, the rapid progress of bio-technologies, including ‘love drugs’ or ‘social bots’,could come in the way of love as an organic feeling. If continued unchecked, romantic relationships run the risk of getting pathologized. This might shift the focus in dealing with challenges in a relationship from a holistic perspective to a more reductive or one-size-fits-all approach.
Lastly, as sex robots become ubiquitous, the eyes of the beholder will be stuck in the skin-deep beauty, undercutting the role of inner feelings and motivations. The ‘perfect’ nature of robots in terms of appearance or even the way it interacts can reinforce negative stereotypes or develop unrealistic expectations in future relationships.
“Whether to avoid the implications of these depends on whether one considers them as positive impacts or negative consequences and there can be disagreements about this,” said Dr Nyholm.
“The best ways of avoiding bad possible impacts that technologies might have on love and other values is to first identify and try to understand the impact that technologies have on our lives and our self-understanding. At least, that’s the first step towards avoiding bad technology-driven developments, so that we can instead focus on good technological developments.”
The authors of this study call for a cautious optimism, to not devoid us from what some might perceive as advantages. For instance, if someone believes that using technologies can help exercise greater agency, without robbing the meaning of love, it might help the person see love in a new way. Hence, instead of discarding technologies, one should consider seeking ways that can counteract or balance out the ‘bad’ effects.
When asked who decides what is ‘bad’, Dr Nyholm said, “When it comes to romantic relationships and other personal relationships, in the end the people involved in these relationships should decide what is best for them.
“However, when we reflect on our relationships and what we value in relationships, we are influenced by commonly held attitudes in our societies: what is sometimes called “common sense”.
“In the end, I think that what is judged to be bad consequences of technology for a relationship should be decided on the basis of a combination of common sense and the attitudes of the people involved in that relationship. It is both a personal matter and a matter of shared attitudes that are part of common sense.”