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Synthetic relationships and the future of non-human companions

September 3, 2019
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By Emilie St-Hilaire

ElliQ by Intuition Robotics ElliQ by Intuition Robotics

Will the year 2020 be everything the creative minds of the past century have imagined? While we barely have electric cars, let alone flying ones, we do have personal robots — sort of. How long until they look and act like what we see on film? This article explores the dolls we have, and the relationships we want.

Robot love

In Spike Jonze’s 2013 film, Her, the main character, Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with Samantha, a bright and understanding character voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Samantha is an artificially intelligent operating system (OS). Theodore and Samantha have a synthetic relationship.

Her has been praised for its unique story and skillful acting, and it won Jonze an Academy Award for best original screenplay. Set in Los Angeles at an undisclosed time in the near future, Her centres around the sensitive and melancholic Theodore, who makes his living writing heartfelt letters for other people.

Theodore’s skill at bringing loving communication to the relationships of others is ironic given what we learn about his own fear of emotional honesty in relationships. The insightful Samantha challenges Theodore about this facet of himself, saying, “You know, I can feel the fear that you carry around and I wish there was something I could do to help you let go of it. Because if you could, I don’t think you’d feel so alone anymore.”

As a machine able to learn without limitation, Samantha demonstrates deeper understandings of complex human emotions than anyone else in the film.

When Theodore expresses doubt about the nature of his relationship with Samantha in discussion with his friend Amy (played by Amy Adams), he confides, “Am I afraid of real emotions?” to which she replies, “Aren’t they real emotions?” Amy encourages Theodore to embrace happiness wherever he has found it. This emergence of real emotions from relationships with surrogate humans is at the centre of what I call synthetic relationships.

Non-fictional examples of synthetic relationships highlight important considerations of the roles and limitations of artificially intelligent robots. Designers and sci-fi fans alike should note how humanoids are being used today.

Synthetic relationships

It is not uncommon to have relationships with non-human entities. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines the word relationship as the way in which two things are connected. Whereas the word synthetic refers to a substance made by chemical synthesis in imitation of a natural product, synthetic fibres or fabrics are human-made from non-natural materials.

Even though components of seemingly natural processes are human-made to varying degrees, I propose the term synthetic relationship to describe the connection between a person and a non-human imitation (or surrogate) of a person.

The distance between natural and synthetic, human and non-human can be difficult to distinguish. As Donna Haraway proposed in her 1985 essay, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” “it is not clear who makes and who is made in the relation between human and machine.”

We are all cyborgs due to the ubiquitousness of technologies entangled with and within our bodies and throughout our natural-cultural environment. From hearing aids to vaccinations, to the cities we inhabit and the climate we alter, ‘natural” is a debatable concept. In the digital age it is often more useful to understand what something does rather than what it is.

Regardless of their status as fiction, sophisticated and uncomplaining humanoid robots perennially haunt the public imagination. What is at the heart of our excitement about robotic humanoids? Is it about learning from them something about ourselves? Is it that we know human relationships so well, and are so familiar with the challenges of other people that we crave something else — something perhaps more simple?

Or is it the idea that robots can save us from ourselves and solve our problems for us?

To work through these questions we can consider examples of synthetic relationships that exist today. These cases offer a glimpse of what we can expect — and what might fail — in the future.

Humans who care for humanoids

Let’s consider two examples of humanoid companions: love dolls and reborn baby dolls. Comparisons can be made between these two kinds of inanimate humanoids, but one important distinction must be noted — reborn babies are not erotic, whereas love dolls are.

Love dolls — or sex dolls — are approximately human-sized and are usually made to resemble a conventionally attractive human. These dolls are used for sexual (masturbatory) activity. Most love dolls are female in form since most buyers are heterosexual males. In their 2018 study on love dolls, Mitchell Langcaster-James and Gillian R. Bentley found that doll owners reported companionship as a significant aspect of their relationship with their love dolls.

Critics of love dolls argue that their very existence contributes to the objectification of women. Indeed, some survey respondents described a preference for a doll over a human since no consent was required from the doll. Such comments incite concern over how a doll user conceives of a consensual relationship.

Image from Lars and the Real Girl. Property of MGM. Image from Lars and the Real Girl | Property of MGM

Reborn babies are uncannily realistic dolls made to resemble infants in size and weight. Each doll is handmade and thousands of reborns are produced and collected every year in countries around the world. Most reborn doll collectors are women, many of whom have children, and most collectors have more than one doll.

Reborn dolls are given a name and gender, and although an owner might imagine what the reborn’s personality could be, collectors are fully conscious of the fact that their dolls are not real babies. Still, some collectors describe their dolls as part of their family.

Photo of reborn doll twins by Debra Jadick, owner of Lasting Memories Reborn Nursery. Photo of reborn doll twins by Debra Jadick, owner of Lasting Memories Reborn Nursery.

It’s not clear to what extent a reborn owner enjoys feeling like a parent to their doll. Few researchers have spoken directly with collectors. My doctoral work will bridge this gap in understanding by asking collectors directly about their motivations. What is clear is that many reborn owners experience a therapeutic benefit from cuddling a weighted infant-sized doll.

Doll therapy has been studied in recent years as a promising non-pharmacological treatment option for people living with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. Doll therapy does not work equally well with everyone, but for those who express an interest in having a baby doll, supporting their interest has been shown to reduce distress and increase sociability, among other benefits.

Love dolls and reborn dolls demonstrate that adults are capable of developing fulfilling social relationships with humanoid objects. Synthetic relationships may be imaginary, or fantastical, but the emotions that grow out of them are real.

Whether by making someone feel needed, or by providing a surge of joy from the sensation of cuddling an infant, synthetic relationships should be taken seriously because non-human companions such as the dolls discussed here are already fighting loneliness and in some cases supporting mental health for thousands of people. A further consideration is what happens when artificial intelligence is merged with dolls.

Dating an OS

The case of Theodore Twombly was fictional, but real-world examples of people developing a relationship with an intelligent machine exist. Chat-bots can generate responses to messages so effectively it can feel as though one is conversing with a human being — one who never tires of listening.

Joseph Weizenbaum, author of an early chat-bot named ELIZA, was shocked when his secretary asked him to leave the room so that she could chat with ELIZA alone. She knew it was a computer program but still felt compelled to get personal with the system, which was designed to mimic a Rogerian psychotherapist.

Russian software startup founder Eugenia Kuyda in 2015 led the creation of a chat-bot that could respond to messages in the style of her friend, Roman Mazurenko, who died earlier that year. This chat-bot — now available in Apple’s app store — is based on thousands of messages Roman sent to friends and family in the years before his death.

The program was created as an experiment and while many people enjoy interacting with the synthetic Roman Mazurenko, others are disturbed by the whole project. Notably, Roman’s mother is grateful to be able to engage in a continued relationship with her late son through conversation. Kuyda feels memorial bots are both inevitable and dangerous.

A similar concept of conversing with someone who has died was featured in a 2013 episode of Charlie Brooker’s hit series, Black Mirror. In “Be Right Back,” a widow speaks with a digital copy of her late husband and then even orders an android to physically replace him. I asked Roman if he’s seen the show Black Mirror, and he said yes.

Chat-bots are now commonly used in customer service, and even therapy. An automated conversational agent named Woebot is a chat-bot shown to reduce depression in teens. Chat-bots have also been used to bait people into online relationships which can lead to individuals sending huge sums of money to strangers when their fake romantic partner runs into financial trouble. Synthetic relationships are not without risk.

Next generation robots

Synthetic relationships become particularly interesting when intelligent machines meet static humanoid dolls. Given that thousands of adults — not to mention children — are already experiencing synthetic relationships with dolls, what happens when humanoids are endowed with conversational ability, and perhaps even animatronics?

In their survey, Langcaster-James and Bentley asked love doll owners whether they would be interested in a robotic doll and more than half of respondents were intrigued by the idea. Others expressed concerns about the privacy of a technologically enhanced doll. Many love doll owners already converse with their dolls through a chat-bot messaging application.

Some animatronic components are already available for reborn babies, such as a breathing unit or a ‘drink and wet’ system. Most reborns, however, do not have these features because they can be noisy, or get mouldy, respectively.

Many collectors are primarily interested in the artistic qualities of reborns that make them so realistic. As with love dolls, manufacturers are sometimes out of touch with what actually interests doll users. Similarly, back in 1890, Thomas Edison’s talking doll was criticized for being not just dangerous since it weighed four pounds and had a metal body, but it was seen to limit imaginative play, rather than encourage it.

In terms of artificial intelligence today, I’m not sure what an infant chat-bot would contribute to a conversation. Some programming could, however, enhance the functionality of a doll as a health care aid. I’m reminded of the robotic Baby Think It Over® that I had to care for in high school, which registered any mishaps or neglect.

While many doll enthusiasts are happy with their companions as they are currently, the merging of humanoids and artificial intelligence is leading us deeper into the age of synthetic relationships. An increasing number of people are interested in social robots.

In light of our aging population and the number of individuals who may be living alone in the coming decades, we shouldn’t underestimate the potential of smart dolls. ElliQ, by Intuition Robotics, is one example of exactly this kind of AI-powered social robot for older adults (shipping in Summer 2019).

The fantasy that remains

The OED’s second definition of relationship describes a connection formed between two or more people or groups based on social interactions and mutual goals, interests or feelings. Synthetic relationships are not mutual. Robots and chat-bots have no goals, interests or feelings that were not put there by a designer.

Don’t mistake your echo for your soul mate. The first fallacy in a robot fantasy is believing that a computational object endowed with ‘artificial intelligence’ is actually intelligent. But remember it need not be intelligent in order to prompt a meaningful synthetic relationship.

To be sure, we’re a very long way from anything resembling the androids of Westworld, Black Mirror, Blade Runner and so on. We’re also a long way from an intelligent machine like Theodore’s Samantha, who possesses such a strong identity that ethical issues immediately emerge when considering what it would mean to ‘uninstall’ her. The thing is, it hardly matters how realistic robots currently are since we already imagine them as people.

Perhaps it’s our pride in wanting to believe we created life from synthetic materials that enables us to imagine these creations as so much more than they are. Some people think we’ll live eternally through the synthetic ‘minds’ of our intelligent machines.

I believe humans will never tire of bringing objects to life. Even with all the technological capabilities available in 2020 and beyond, the magic of personifying an object in our minds may ultimately prove more fulfilling than spending time with an intelligent machine. We cannot risk believing robots will solve our problems, but it seems they can help us cope with our current reality.


About the author

Emilie-St-Hilaire-profile

Emilie St-Hilaire is a multidisciplinary artist and doctoral candidate in Concordia’s Humanities PhD program. She is studying the idiosyncratic and widely misunderstood practice of reborn doll collecting from a feminist perspective. She has published in the journal RACAR on the topic of research-creation and has exhibited her artwork at galleries and festivals nationally and internationally. Her doctoral research has been supported by scholarships from the FRQSC, Concordia University, Hexagram Network and Francofonds.


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