In 1942, Isaac Asimov codified the first official version of the Three Laws of Robotics, which specified some fairly restrictive rules for artificially-created humanoids:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

By 2050, says artificial-intelligence researcher David Levy, the law, at least in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, will permit a robot to wed a human, something I suspect Isaac Asimov, or at least R. Daneel Olivaw, never seriously anticipated.

But Levy is quite serious:

In his [doctoral] thesis, "Intimate Relationships with Artificial Partners," Levy conjectures that robots will become so human-like in appearance, function and personality that many people will fall in love with them, have sex with them and even marry them.

"It may sound a little weird, but it isn't," Levy said. "Love and sex with robots are inevitable."

He's written a book Love and Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships (New York: Harper, 2007) in which he argues that humans already have emotional attachments to nonhumans: pets. It's a small step from Fido to, say, Sony's robot dog Aibo; how much farther is it to Helen O'Loy?

FembotI'm not quite sure what I think about this. I can definitely identify a substantial ick factor right off the bat: it just seems wrong, and anyway how could I possibly be attracted to a bag of bolts? But then I think about the women who have caught my eye (and usually nothing else) over the years, and I wonder: were it possible to copy them, would I find the copies sufficiently similiar to the originals, and if so, wouldn't they have the same effect on me? And, perhaps scariest of all, were I to meet someone who seemed highly desirable, and only much later find out that the "someone" had been built in some lab at the University of Maastricht (Dr Levy's home base), would it make any real difference to me?

This is troubling, not least because the Three Laws of Robotics are a lot more kindly disposed toward my half of Homo sapiens than any state's set of divorce laws. It seems at least reasonable to me that if we do eventually have artificial persons, we will have to at some point determine whether they're entitled to the same rights as us "natural" folks. (The Constitution was originated by, and on behalf of, "We the People"; one's robot companion must at some point be defined as a person to qualify for its protections, I surmise.)

Then I think back to Helen O'Loy. The 1938 story by Lester Del Rey begins like this:

I am an old man now, and I can still see Helen as Dave unpacked her, and still hear him gasp as he looked her over.

And maybe that's the catch. One thing about the hitherto-nonexistent Woman Of My Dreams: we're supposed to grow old together. The inventor changes, ages, eventually dies; Helen does none of these things. (He tweaks her appearance slightly to create the illusion of age, but that's as far as it goes.) This one factor might be enough to talk me out of a robot girlfriend altogether. I suppose I could go look for a really young human female hey, it worked for Dennis Kucinich but that's not going to happen either.

The Vent

  9 December 2007

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 Copyright © 2007 by Charles G. Hill