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Can robots learn to love?

The research behind Battlestar Galactica, Westworld & Her's depiction of emotional AI.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is a topic that seems to be everywhere right now. Whether it’s controlling humanity in The Matrix series, rebelling against us in Westworld or falling in love in the movies Her and Ex Machina, the human fascination with artificial intelligence has only become more obsessive as AI begins to permeate Western culture.

While some may be familiar with a name like Alan Turing, the creator of the Turing Test, which aims at testing a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behaviour indistinguishable from human behaviour – we’ve actually been thinking about the idea of artificial intelligence in non-human objects for a long, long time.

However, with recent advancements in AI becoming more commonplace in the form of apps like Apple’s Siri, Google’s Alexa, and Microsoft’s Cortana, non-techies are starting to seriously consider the implications of whether or not a robot could fall in love — and what it means for us if they do.

Can humans fall in love with robots?

Peter Norvig, Director of Research at Google and one of the leading experts in AI, believes that falling in love with an AI robot will become commonplace for humans. “It’s all too easy for us to fall in love,” he states in an interview with The Daily Beast. “We love our dogs. We love our cats… and we’re sure they don’t care, but we do it anyways.”

Norvig makes an interesting point, which is only heightened by the fact that humans automatically look for and assign human-like tendencies to non-human and inanimate objects. This process, called “anthropomorphism” is considered to be an innate tendency of human psychology.

Additionally, Japanese researchers from the universities of Toyohashi and Kyoto have concluded that humans empathize with humanoid robots in perceived pain — if an android is 'hurt' then humans empathize with that pain. This strengthens the argument that we could easily fall in love with our humanoid mechanical counterparts.

With this in mind, it’s all too easy to see how we could fall in love with a robot which was designed to mimic human behaviour. This is especially true if technology evolves so that robots become indistinguishable from humans — a point illustrated particularly well in the television series reboot of Battlestar Galactica, in which several AI robots and humans are emotionally connected.

Will robots love us back?

The biggest question for Peter Norvig, however, isn’t if humans will fall in love with robots; it’s whether the robots we love will truly love us back.

“I think eventually [robots] will be able to act just like they are falling in love,” he states. “People are doing the same thing. We’re doing what we’re programmed to do by our genes. It really comes down to can a computer have intentions of its own.”

However, British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking has warned us against creating the kind of complete AI which can feel and have intentions the way humans do, hypothesizing that robots may begin to evolve autonomously and ultimately replace humans. This topic is also explored in Westworld, involving humanoid AI robots that experience emotions and physical sensations such as pain and pleasure.

Hypothesizing further, tricky questions emerge. If AI robots can have emotions, is it ethical and moral to program robots which can experience the positive and negative aspects of the world? How would the knowledge that a robot’s “love” was merely programmed affect the mental health of a human companion? Would simulated love matter to us, as long as it seems like love?

The rise of robot rights

As AI robots become more commonplace and continue to learn to mimic our speech and behavioural patterns, it’s not difficult to imagine a world in which humans begin petitioning for the legal right to declare their love for, and legally bind themselves to, the AI robots that they love.

In his book 2010: Odyssey Two, distinguished sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke writes, “Whether we are based on carbon or on silicon makes no fundamental difference; we should each be treated with appropriate respect.” If this is the approach that we take moving forward, then AI love is set to change how we fundamentally think about consciousness and emotions.

All things considered, would it matter if your Valentine looked, sounded and acted like a “real” person, but really wasn't? Or would being loved by an AI robot be enough for you?

Up next: Robots that babysit your kids and even fold your laundry. Who couldn't fall in love with that?

A robot that folds my laundry!? Now that's smart!

Alyson Shane

Alyson Shane is a writer and business owner from Winnipeg, Manitoba who has been publishing content online for 16+ years. She runs Starling Social, an agency which develops digital marketing strategies that combine social media, paid advertising and content strategy to keep businesses growing and engaged with their customers. Outside the office, Alyson is a passionate urbanist who loves gardening, riding her bike and thinking about the public spaces that bring us together. She can be reached on social media at @alysonshane.

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