Sex and the Single Robot: part 1

Once upon a time in the context of course work we were asked a poignant question, prompting much reflection: do we control technology or does it control us? After weeks of reflection during my morning runs and commutes I concluded that technology’s control was conditional upon one’s dependence upon it. While that conclusion is true as far as it goes, the more I read and am informed of life outside of rural Wisconsin, the more I become aware of the naiveté of that perspective. My most recent enlightenment has come from reading Alone Together: Why We Expect more from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle, a book that has prompted me to think that the book Sex and the Single Girl by Helen Gurley Brown—a book that inaugurated the sexual revolution in the early 1960’s (information I possess not by familiarity with the book but through the use of a technological search engine)–is in need of a 21st C update; hence the title.

In Alone Together, Turkle references David Levy’s 2007 book Love and Sex with Robots: the Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships in which he advocates the virtues of relationships with–and even marriage to–robots. By mid-century, he claims, “love with robots will be as normal as love with other humans…” Moreover, he claims that robots won’t fail where humans do—no cheating, no heartbreak, no “fake orgasms” (although it is unclear why a pre-programed act would be preferable to a response “faked” for the fulfillment of another), not to mention, more control. Levy’s single narcissistic criterion for judging the worth of robots is “does being with a robot make you feel better?” But can a relationship with a mere “performance tool” teach us intimacy and authenticity?

Robots that were designed for instrumental purposes—to do for us, like searching out land mines and sweeping our floors—have infiltrated the child’s playroom and long term care facilities for the elderly as sociable objects—to be there for us and with us, as objects of mutual affection. As Turkle acknowledges, “…when we are asked to care for an object, when an object thrives under our care, we experience that object as intelligent, but, more importantly, we feel ourselves to be in a relationship with it.” It is only a short step to robotic intimacy, especially for those offered this form of intimacy during their formative years.

Technology is indeed seductive. I was recently a delegate to a national convention numbering in excess of 1500 people. While the directors had the foresight to disallow any form of electronic communication on the floor, the proceedings were projected on two large screens at the front of the stage for the benefit of those in the back of the large room. My assigned seat was in the second row from the stage, yet I found myself drawn to the vibrant, dynamic, larger than life persona projected onto the screens rather than the personal presence before me. How much more seductive is technology when it meets our human vulnerabilities?–and we are indeed very vulnerable. We maintain a pretense of hundreds of voyeuristic Facebook friends, yet we remain ensconced in loneliness, for despite our loneliness we fear intimacy and authenticity. As Turkle states, “Technology offers us the illusions of companionship without the demands of friendship.”

It is maintained that through intimate and even sexual relationships with robots we can learn to be better friends and lovers. But this is based on the erroneous assumption that our sexuality and sexual performances are the epitome of intimacy–that human sexuality is the “be all and end all” of human relationships. But in desires for self-gratification, we have transformed a unifying, other-centered act of love and procreation into a self-centered performance art. Perfecting sexual performance through practice on an object does not translate into enhanced personal friendship and intimacy. Quite the contrary, through our interactions with an objectified “other” we will merely learn to treat others as objects and subsequently come to understand ourselves as objects, as well, a fact incongruous with the notion of relational self-improvement.

We have come to navigate intimacy by dodging it. It was once said that “the eyes are the windows on the soul,” yet we increasingly avoid eye contact with others, being distracted by the “demands” of our technology. But if we would perchance look into the eyes of a robot, what would we see? Where is the soul? What Winston Churchill said about buildings is true of all cultural artifacts, “We shape our buildings and then they shape us.” We create our technologies, our robots, and they, in turn shape us, remaking ourselves and shaping our intimacy with each other through intimacy with machines. Whether our ventures into technology involve communication or physical and psychological intimacy, we must ask ourselves what we are losing in the midst of our “gains,” and whether it is too great a price to pay. As social beings, our personal identity is forged in the perichoretic dance of selfhood, a reciprocal encounter of the self and the other, ideas of Paul Ricoeur that will be explored in the next installment.

Love a robot? Silly, you say? Try losing your smart phone…

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