In 2013 the film ‘Her’, written and directed by Spike Jonze and starring Joaquin Phoenix, depicted a near-future world where a man falls in love with a computer operating system. The OS is intelligent, charismatic and has a female human voice (Scarlett Johansson). Last year in the film ‘Ex Machina’, an android with artificial intelligence, Ava, played by Alicia Vikander, displays charm and seductive powers as ‘she’ tries to pass the Turing test – which determines whether a machine has an intelligence equivalent to that of a human. Both are films which present a science-fiction world where computers and robots have the ability to build relationships and express intimacy with humans. Emerging from the research of Wonder Fools’ latest project I have found that this fiction might soon become a reality.
Early in the 1990s, virtual reality was on the verge of being the next big technological advancement. Excitement began to grow about the possibilities of ‘another world’ but the hype was soon stunted by the reality that the technology was not yet ready. Fast-forward to 2014, where Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook acquired the leading developer of virtual reality, Oculus Rift, for $2billion. The money itself speaks volumes about the advances of VR technology since the early 90s and the significance Facebook places on it as the future of communication. On the day of the purchase, Zuckerberg himself wrote:
‘Virtual reality was once the dream of science fiction. But the internet was also once a dream, and so were computers and smartphones. The future is coming and we have a chance to build it together.’
Virtual reality is not just the future of gaming, as it is often dismissed as. Zuckerberg’s vision is that VR makes Facebook a place, a digital location. In addition, there are already companies scrambling to develop software for all kinds of different purposes: education, sports and even pornography. Developers in the porn world are creating experiences that were beyond the realms of possibility even 10 years ago. Fantastical scenarios, specific fetishes and even the opportunity for virtual sexual relationships. As the technology develops and grows even closer to reality, the question is: how will VR experiences affect our relationships in the real world?
The easy answer would be to say: ‘not at all’. However, for many people intimate experiences and relationships with computers, robots and VR could help fill a void in their lives. For people that are lonely or who struggle with the otherness of other people, virtual experiences offer an alternative to relationships that are hard to initiate let alone maintain in the real world. In addition, virtual reality or robots may allow us in the future endless options for customisation: we could build the perfect person for us, the person of our dreams. Some say the danger with this, and the answer to my question above, is that people become lost in the virtual world or dependent on their relationship with an android. Others would argue: if this makes them happy, is it a bad thing?
Another question that sprung to mind when researching was: is this all inevitable? Is the human race destined to a future in fifty or one hundred years time of having sex with robots and falling in love with virtual characters? In Japan, where there is a growing fascination with digital technology, there is a “flight from human intimacy” – a third of all under 30s have never dated. In South Korea, a goal has been set with the aim that every household in the country has a domestic robot by 2015. Sex toy company True Companion has developed a robot called Roxxxy. Designed for sexual purposes, the robot is just recently on sale for $6,995 – in May 2015 there were already over 4000 pre-orders. Daniel Levy, the publisher of ‘Love and Sex with Robots’ argues that just like same-sex marriages have been recently accepted, in the future relationships with robots will become part of the norm. A Sunday Time article quotes industry insiders concurring with this, stating that by 2050 intimate relationships between robots and humans will be accepted as everyday.
Most indicators point towards a future where intimacy and relationships with robots and in virtual worlds are real possibilities and an option for many. But whilst the technology is still being developed and this future is still 10, 25 or 50 years away there are still a lot of questions. Will human relationships ever be replaced altogether? Will the intimacy of a human loved one always prevail? Furthermore, there are ethical questions to be raised such as is virtual sex with a virtual person cheating? Robert Weiss, an expert on intimacy, sex and addiction in the digital age (who Wonder Fools had the pleasure of interviewing as part of the Coolidge Effect research process) believes that nothing will ever beat the feeling of human touch and interaction. This is my personal view: that nothing will ever better the real thing. That said, as discussed in this blog I can see the benefits that virtual relationships could have for other people. One thing is certain: that the science fiction of films like ‘Her’ and ‘Ex Machina’ may soon be just science.
Further Reading and Watching:
Article: Sunday Times “Is the future of intimacy A sex robot?” - bit.ly/timesrobot
Article: The Guardian “Sex, love and robots: is this the end of intimacy?” - bit.ly/guarobots
Article: The Guardian “Why have young people in Japan stopped having sex?”- bit.ly/guarticle
Article: The Verge “Voices From A Virtual Past” – bit.ly/vrhisto
Robot: True Companion “The Roxxxy Robot” – bit.ly/roxxxybot
Documentary: Vice “Digital Love Industry” – bit.ly/vicedocu