Friday, November 09, 2007

Sex Robots : The Real Terminators?

In a recent compelling and controversial web article, Lance Ulanoff of PC Magazine tackles the attitudes of the American consumer to complex robotics. In the article, where he also gives an overview of the current basket of American consumer robots and other robots worldwide, he goes into detail about the potential problems with our attitudes towards advanced robots; both from the standpoint of our unrealistic science fiction "fantasy expectations" toward them and also our negative attitudes towards robots that began to look and act too much like us. I sent an E-mail to him explaining my thoughts and opinions on this important subject, and what I feel are some future repercussions of the upcoming mixture of human and robot psychologies. He suggested I publish this response. You will find that response below.

Note, anyone who thinks I am promoting the future described below should know that I have definite fears we will plunge into such a future without the deep careful planning it requires. And before you think I'm personally inclined to the predicted scenarios given then perhaps you should think deeply about the fact that I don't even have a cell phone or a pager and that statistically you do. Here is my response.

You have touched on several points that involve the future, and in my opinion, there is no future ahead of us that does not get weird very fast. I'm using the word weird in a neutral sense, it could be wonderful or terrible, that's up to us.

I feel the reason that humanoid robots creep us out is due to our natural species competitiveness and defensiveness. The minute a robot can take our job, outfight us in a humanoid manner (think boxing, not guns which we already accept are superior in combat), or make us obsolete in an intellectual manner, we feel threatened.

If androids and robots wipe out humanity it will be because we start to choose them over other humans for love and companionship, not because of any Terminator scenario. We humans love a nice safe universe that tailors itself to our most hidden desires; hence the explosion in video games that offer virtual worlds. Now add to that phenomenon one of the more disturbing conclusions from a study that focused on the effect excessive viewing of sexual materials had on men. The study claimed that men are less likely to want real sex after viewing such materials rather than more. This is due to the perfection of the model's bodies when compared to the real love partners of the men who participated in the study. How can a real woman compete with such beauty when it is often altered by surgery and enhanced by expert photo retouching? Can you imagine the effect on society of a physically perfect, obedient, tireless, android love partner that modeled its "personality" to your every secret desire? Sex would move out of the bedroom into the laboratory of the newly formed Department Of Preserving Humanity (Note, there is no such department now). There would even be databases of downloable techniques to upgrade your silicon love partner. How can a mere human compete?

Despite the fact progress is being made all around us towards this future, very few people find a cyborg future palatable. I hate to use the word cyborg because it's laden with Hollywood inflections and a host of other irrelevancies. Our attitudes of defensive competitiveness currently force robots to conform to a harmless shape and substance (except for military robots but remember we are talking about consumer robots). That attitude disappears if we begin to identify with the android. People are still too complacent with the idea that we are "years away" from merging with our machine counterparts because they mistakenly believe that we have to understand a lot more about how the brain works to interface with it. They hold the false idea that we need to duplicate, or at least completely model brain function before we can work with it. Nothing could be further from the truth. Take any real wetware type of story available on the Internet, where real scientists attempt to merge neurons with silicon, and the awesome neuroplasticity of the human brain becomes self-evident. Neurons by their very nature process signals and identify patterns and they don't care where the signals come from.

The only potential obstacle to the man-machine merger are political and social ones. But who is going to tell a poor quadraplegic that they can't link up with the Home Assistant 9000 to have a chance at a better life? What politician wants that on their soundbite resume? The social ones are even more nefarious. There are people right now giving their kids growth hormone who don't need it. The kids aren't dwarfs, the parents just want them to be taller so they can have an edge in life. I'm appalled by this and would never do this to my children, if I had any. However the impulse to have your child win at any cost is real and has far reaching consequences when it comes to technology. Will little Johnny will be sentenced to a life of menial jobs and huge social disadvantages if he can't link his brain up to the Universal Hypernet?

In this future there is no dividing line between us and the machine so the current fears fade away. I pray that we are smart enough to anticipate and plan for the new and very real dangers that are innate to such a future. Is this the future we want? I don't know. But I know it's coming. Why? Because of a very disturbing yet ordinary event that happened to me some time ago.

While I was waiting for my order at a nearby sandwich shop, the girl making my sandwich was on her cell phone. She had been on it when I came in and was still on it when I went out. During that time another women came into the store talking on her cell phone. She was asking the other person on the line what they wanted on their sandwich and then, after receiving the answer and relaying it to the sandwich girl, started talking about a gamut of other typical things instead of hanging up. She never hung up. She exited the store while still on her phone. The realization I had was astonishing. Two people in the same room conducted an entire business transaction connected via cell phones to phantom voices far away, and never really connected to anyone else in the physical world around them, while a ghost on the periphery of their perception watched them in shock.

We are already connected to the machines, just not surgically.

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