Will robots get married?
You've known each another for many years now, and you've come to truly understand each another. You share a home, pay bills and putter around the garden together. The two of you look forward to your Sunday morning ritual of working on The New York Times crossword puzzle together. You are truly and deeply in love.
You'd like to get married, but unfortunately, you live in a society where your relationship is considered unnatural and immoral. Despite the breadth of your love for each other, marriage is against the law. If your beloved were a human and not a robot, society might be more tolerant.
While the idea of human-robot marriage may seem far-fetched now, it may one day come to pass if artificial intelligence researcher David Levy's theory is correct.
Levy, a British researcher who recently earned a Ph.D. from the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands, believes that by 2050, robots and humans will be able to marry legally in the United States. He predicts thatMassachusetts will lead the way as it did in 2004, when it became the first state to allow same-sex marriages between humans.
As robots become increasingly humanoid in appearance, Levy and other roboticists believe that people will begin to have sex with robots -- as soon as 2011, says at least one artificial intelligence theorist [source:Economist]. Physical attractiveness, coupled with the advances in robot programming that will allow human-like emotions and intellect in robots, could produce artificial mates that some humans will want to marry.
In fact, Levy told one reporter, it's "inevitable" [source: LiveScience].
Why is he so confident? For his doctoral thesis, Levy researched sociology, sexology, robotics, artificial intelligence and other fields related to marriage, love and robots. He concluded that all of the most important factors that cause humans to fall in love with one another could be programmed into robots. Do you like your women to be coquettish? Your robot will be programmed to be demure and to flirt. Does a strong, sensitive man who likes to build premium furniture light your fire? In the not-too-distant future, say some researchers, your perfect man will be available for purchase.
We’ve already had a peek at everyday life within a human-robot marriage. Remember the Geek Squad“Mandroid” commercial featuring the robot husband with the whistling lisp?
Levy isn't predicting that human couples will stop falling in love and reproducing. He doesn't even think a lot of people will opt for a robotic mate. Instead, Levy thinks that robots will offer a few people a viable alternative to being unable to find their ideal partner. Shy people who are uncomfortable meeting others could potentially benefit from marriage to a robot. So, too, could the mentally ill and people who "have unpleasant personalities" [source: LiveScience].
But does this mean that robots will be created just so jerks can have someone to push around? What happens when pushing people around leads to the "death" of the robot? It turns out that there are many people thinking today about the ethical implications robotic life will pose tomorrow.
Can't Robots Get a Break?
Science fiction author Isaac Asimov created the three laws of robotics in his short story "Runaround." But these are mainly aimed at protecting humans fromrobots. Do robots have rights, too?
But what happens if robots become a large part of society? How will people treat them? Will humans hold themselves superior to their creations? Will they balk at the idea of robots taking the place of one of the partners in a romantic relationship? Many roboticists believe that now is the time to begin thinking about the moral and ethical questions posed by humanity's development of robots. South Korea, after all, plans to have a robot in every house by 2020. This is a far cry from the chicken in every pot envisioned by Herbert Hoover's campaign during the 1928 United States presidential election.
It's a good thing, then, that South Korea is at the forefront of thinking about robot ethics. In fact, the country announced in March 2007 that it had assembled a panel to develop a Robot Ethics Charter, a set of guidelines for future robotic programming. It will deal with the human aspects of human-robot interaction -- like safeguards against addiction to robot *** -- as well as explore ways to protect humans and robots from suffering abuse at the hands of one another [source: National Geographic].
The South Koreans aren't the only ones who are thinking about robots' rights. In 2006, future robot issues were brought up as part of a conference on the future commissioned by the British government. Among the issues discussed were the potential need for government-subsidized healthcare and housing for robots, as well as robots' role in the military [source: BBC].
These considerations do not need to be addressed immediately, but as robots become increasingly life-like, these issues will almost certainly come into play. Designers are already working on robotic skin that can produce life-like facial expressions. Others are developing robots that can hold conversations and mimic human emotions.
It may be very difficult for many people to overcome the idea of a human-robot couple. In 1970, Dr. Masahiro Mori wrote an article for Energy magazine in which he describes the "uncanny valley," a phenomenon where people grow uncomfortable with technological beings the more human-like they become. People build robots that have human qualities to help them complete human tasks, but once these robots start to look and act like humans, people start to be turned off by them [source: Mori].
With these and other features, robots of the future will present a great many challenges as they integrate into human society. And in the face of such challenges, perhaps the idea of human-robot marriages isn't so scandalous after all. That is, if the robot is just as willing to get married as the human.