I had a lovely discussion about chatbots recently. Those who know me, are aware that human and machine relations have always been a primary focus for my design and anthropology studies – and as a mentor to Master students at Hochschule für Gestaltung und Kunst FHNW, it has been a focus I didnot waver from. Now as I am heading towards (trying to figure out really) how to wrap up my current Masters in Anthropology, this phenomenon of human and machine is getting even more central to my academic question.
We live in a competitive society. Where we always strive for better, newer, updated. Even in relationships. It’s a part of behavioural science (which I enjoy studying deeply). It is rare when someone decides to settle for less glamorous and more human. People cheat, neglect, breakup – but barely anyone tries to improve together with the parter they already have. We tend to project our own insecurities on our partners rather than working on ourselves – and this is not limited to a love relationship but also within friendships and work environments. Leaving individuals with anxiety and depression (rampant and far spread than Covid, yet far less treated as a pandemic) and as a society we are barely doing anything to improve this situation.
So when a programmer steps in, with researchers and designers – AI girlfriend is born. Yes, a chatbot is not a matter of fiction anymore. 2014 saw the birth of Xiaoice, and way before that Masahiro Mori (a robotics professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology) had already written about religion and robots. We are also aware of Sophia – the AI Robot that once said it would “Destroy Human”; of course we live in a society that is surely and gradually becoming AI dependent (Siri, Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, etc.) hence making it essential to understand how human-AI interaction is gradually becoming ubiquitous, especially through the use of language. Take my mother for example – fed up of my dad spending hours reading rather than communicating with her, these days best part of her afternoon is spent arguing with Alexa about which music to play!
“I have noticed that, as robots appear more humanlike, our sense of their familiarity increases until we come to a valley. I call this relation the ‘uncanny valley’” – Mori (1970).
The uncanny valley is a phenomenon that can be considered not only in design, but can also be experienced in language. To make something visible to the other, we often use gestures such as pointing, tilting of head, lifted chin and other body languages to transfer spatial information. By repeating these actions we learn to associate them with words and concrete or specific deictic. These gestures transform into a physical way of giving meaning and familiarity to things, involving spatial metaphors. Making mentalese and thought hypothesis as a way of associating meaning and familiarity. Hence, familiarity is causing this aspect of loving and falling in love with a machine – an unavoidable fact, as humans are becoming more machine like and machines more human like.
Men (and women) are opting for AI girlfriends/partners. Why waste energy on a relationship that half-way satisfies needs – emotionally unavailable and eventually also physically unavailable? Why waste time with a man/woman who cannot provide all the essentials but expects complete loyalty? Why be with a man/woman who had multiple partners? Why be with a woman who remains career oriented? Why respect the new relationship this person is in when s/he hooked up a few times with others while in a previous committed relationship? Why waste time with someone whose mannerisms are weird? These are the new age questions that didn’t quite come up completely during our parents era. But as competition and outward glam gets integral to our human-mechanical life, we are slowly but surely losing the human-moral aspect.
In our generation acceptance of polyamory, sexual freedom, “we can do whatever we want to” – has created an urgent void where emotion has been overriden by mechanical and self-centred human needs. Which cannot be critiqued as it is a matter of individual perspectives and way of life. But I want to make sure we understand that by mechanical-human needs I do not mean AI but rather physicality devoid of emotions. Because we are scared to show how we feel. Being feelingless is considered stable and emotionally empty considered a mark of “bright future” and “killer career focus”.
People are far more relaxed to not be in a relationship than being in one, and as J puts it: “who needs drama as these days everyone comes with previous baggage and ex’s or even no-string-attached ex-sexual-prowess’ of a said partner create tantrums and awkward situations where there be no need of it?! And when they don’t, their mutual friends do!” Also, somehow, emotional aspect is actually being covered better by AI than humans themselves! Even when having an AI girlfriend/partner doesn’t mean s/he belongs to you alone, emotional satisfaction one gets from AI is definitely making it worth sharing this one girl/guy with many. Argument? “Atleast s/he’s not fucking around!” Go figure!
We can sound as modern as we want and as cool/open-minded our sexual orientation might sound – humans are inherently jealous. And to avoid that jealousy and unnecessary drama we subdue our emotions. These days in most cases the fact remains: having a human partner does not guarantee that s/he belongs to a singular person. Then why bother? In fact, for the sake of example, Xiaoice’s creators claim she’s dating millions of different people – an artificial intelligence driven chatbot that’s redefining China’s conceptions of romance and relationships – and why not? If s/he can replicate the uncanny valley of sweet or deep voice, big eyes, sassy personality, and most importantly – being “emotionally available”, s/he is a better girl/boyfriend than many of us humans.