Take Siri, Apple’s smart personal assistant on iPhone. Not only have users expressed a strong preference for whether its voice is male or female, but some felt the need to produce lengthy Reddit elegies for older versions that disappear after iOS updates.
Siri is just one indicator of how easily the idea of talking to robots, and the machines talking back, has crept into everyday life.
Would you prefer to have no love at all, or to have love and sex with a robot?
Artificial intelligence pioneer David Levy believes it won’t be too long until we’re having sex with them.
He told Marketing: "It isn’t because it is better to converse with or have a relationship with a chatbot or robot than a human, but because some people can’t create good relationships for themselves. There are lonely people out there."
Levy is the research side of Erotic Chatbots, which has just launched an Indiegogo campaign to fund chatbots that flirt or have pornographic chat with lonely hearts online. A chatbot isn’t a real-life robot, but a programme that uses natural language processing to talk convincingly to humans, via a chat room or an app.
Levy’s earlier, non-sexual chatbots have twice won the Loebner Prize, an annual competition for AI programmes.
The prize is based on the ‘Turing test’, where a judge communicating with a robot via keyboard should have trouble determining whether the machine is human or not. Levy also happens to be an international chess master, kicking off his programming career in computer chess.
He believes the realism of his software will differentiate it from cruder adult chatbots already available online.
But why try and sexualise robots at all?
Lonely robot lovers
When Levy published Love and Sex with Robots, the culmination of his years of research into android-human relationships, many thought he was positing machines as a stand-in for human relationships. But he says this is the wrong way to look at it.
He said: "I get asked, why is it better to have sex with a robot than with a human? But that’s not the question, the question is - would you prefer to have no love at all, or to have love and sex with a robot?"
There are many existential questions on what ‘love’ might mean with a robot, and what the barriers are. One is the ‘uncanny valley’. This is the idea that when a synthetic being almost, but not entirely, looks and behaves like a human, the freakier it is.
Erotic Chatbots, judging by its demo videos on Indiegogo, might be more funny than scary at this stage. The videos follow two male-voiced and female-voiced chatbots as they get to know one another.
In one episode, the female bot asks: ‘What is a chatbot, if it isn’t like a robot?’ while the male replies: ‘You can’t see a chatbot, it’s invisible. It’s software, soft like your eyes, your beautiful brown eyes.’ Sexy stuff.
Levy claims his chatbot software is the most realistic on the market, though he won’t go into technical detail for commercial reasons.
He said: "We will have a dialogue history whereby our chatbots will remember all of your conversations and details, so when it talks to you again, it will know what it has said in the past.
"That means it can avoid repetition and use information gleaned from you to enhance future conversations."
He added: "The linguistic philosophy we’re following is one that enables our software to get an understanding of what the user means."
The decline of porn
Levy predicted in 2008 that sex robots would arrive just a few years later. He now admits his timing was off but still thinks it will happen, pointing to a Californian sex doll company, RealDoll, that has just announced the first dolls which will talk back.
He said: "I have always felt conversation and speech recognition are the two hardest aspects of AI, but I did anticipate it would only be a matter of years before the first crude sex doll came onto the market.
My wife thinks men who are interested in this are a bit weird.
"I think that others will soon follow, as soon as it’s established that there’s a market for robots with electronics. There are plenty of entrepreneurs wanting to make big bucks out of this market."
Levy points to the slumping porn industry as a possible future source of investment in smart sex dolls, with producers forced to examine new revenue models after the rise of free internet porn.
His stance is unapologetic at a time when there are questions over the long-term impact of online porn on real-world relationships, particularly in the young. Is it wise to encourage young men (and women) to form relationships with beings that never say no?
Asked what his family thinks about his work, Levy said: "My wife thinks men who are interested in this are a bit weird."
He acknowledges that people who use robots for sexual gratification may be "different", but claims the technology isn’t too far off women using vibrators.
When it comes to ethical questions, Levy claims mainly to have thought about the impact on professional sex workers.
He said: "Clearly once the products go mainstream and become inexpensive, it may curtail the world’s oldest profession.
"I personally don’t think one can expect research to stop simply because a type of invention will put people out of work."
While Erotic Chatbots is focused on adult chat and flirting, Levy is hoping to sell the underlying software to corporations for other applications.
The idea of chatbots in customer service is not new, with BMW recently building an AI-powered bot for 24-hour help online.
Levy said: "The flirty and sexy chatbots are a microcosm of what we’re trying to do. We anticipate huge demand for the tech in other domains.
"We think the advertising world is offers huge potential. Imagine having a conversation with a chatbot that can talk intelligently about a particular type of product."
The concept of robot helpers, while becoming a practical reality, is uncomfortably close to science fiction. Does Levy pay attention to dire warnings in films such as 'Ex Machina'?
He said: "I’m basically a no-sci person. I did go and see 'Her', which I thought was excellent.
"There is a gap between what I believe is going to be the case and a possible future, and what others believe, but that gap is narrowing. I think people are beginning to accept that this tech is coming."
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