Love in the time of robots

by Thomas Wells

Here-is-a-robotThe robots are coming. Even if they don't actually think, they will behave enough like they do to take over most of the cognitive labour humans do, just as fossil-fuel powered machines displaced human muscle power in the 19th and 20th centuries. I've written elsewhere about the kind of changes this new industrial revolution implies for our political and moral economy if we are to master its utopian possibilities and head off its dystopian threats. But here I want to explore some more intimate consequences of robots moving into the household. Robots will not only be able to do our household chores, but care work, performing the labours of love without ever loving. I foresee two distinct tendencies. First, the attenuation of inter-human intimacy as we have less need of each other. Second, the attractiveness of robots as intimate companions.

Robots will allow us to economise on love

Robots are smartish machines that will soon be able to perform complicated but mundane tasks. They will be, relative to humans, low maintenance, reliable, and tireless. If they cost the same as cars, which doesn't seem implausible, most people will be able to afford at least one. That would effectively provide everyone with command over a full-time personal servant (actually more than full-time since they presumably won't need to sleep). Imagine how much easier life will be with someone else to do all the household chores (an incremental improvement on dishwashers and vacuum cleaners) and also the household care work like potty-training children (a revolutionary improvement). But also, imagine how this may disrupt the political-economy of the 'traditional' household and our dependency on love.

As feminist economists have long pointed out, households are factories in function and corporations in identity. They are factories because they apply human labour and tools to convert inputs like groceries, nappies, houses, etc. into things worth having, like meals, children, homes, etc. They are corporations because they are unified economic units, separated from the individualistic competitive market that operates outside its walls. The individuals who make up a household, like the employees of any firm, are supposed to work together as colleagues to advance the success and prosperity of the corporate 'family' as a whole, rather than to advance their own individual material interests as actors in a market would. Organising production outside of the market in this way makes economic sense in many circumstances, and for the same reasons we have business firms. Using the market comes with transaction costs associated with establishing trust and quality assurance between self-regarding strangers.

In addition to minimising transaction costs, corporate economic structures can also have positive benefits. In particular, many projects – child-rearing for example, or soccer matches – are most economically achieved by team-work. A team works together on many-hands problems and thereby achieves much more than the same number of individuals operating by and for themselves could. One can't organise team-work through the market because it is impossible to identify and directly reward the marginal contribution of each worker to the final outcome (whether producing thriving children or winning a soccer match). The corollary of this is that team-work requires not only suspending the individualistic 'homo economicus' logic of the market, but also inculcating an ethic of self-abnegating commitment in which individuals adopt the common goal of their 'family' as a goal for themselves, and do not shirk the sacrifices it requires of them. There are different psychological routes to establishing this disposition to self-less cooperation, including viewing the work itself as sacred, or feeling bound by honour to help one's co-workers. But in the family it is generally achieved through love.

The arrival of cheap robot-servants will allow households to produce consumption goods like meals and child-care much more efficiently, since the number of human hours involved will be much less. That means the standard team of two adults will no longer be required. There may not seem anything fundamentally new about this, since machines have been replacing human labour inside the home for a 100 years (e.g. washing machines). Such technologies have supported the rise of single adult households and the social emancipation of women. It turns out that when people can afford not to have to love another person, fewer of us do so. The key difference is that robots, unlike washing machines, will be smart enough to care, something that only humans used to be able to do.

Elderly nursing home resident with a Paro robot: Source

At least, robots will be able to simulate care. They will be able to perform care behaviour in attending to children, sick people, and the elderly without actually caring. They'll be able to offer companionship to lonely people without being companions, to listen and smile along to senile people's stories without understanding them, to help the hospitalised with their pain and distress without actually empathising with them. And so on.

Some people, and not only academic philosophers, quibble at the idea that such simulation is as good as the real thing. Not only on the same semantic grounds that they would argue that machine translation can't count as real translation. But also for its deleterious effects on human society. If we can have our elderly relatives cared for and 'kept company' by robots (which is the most developed use of sociable robots to date), we will be freed from feeling guilty for not spending time with them ourselves. Isn't that just an excuse to default on our moral obligations? This is the critique particularly brought by technology optimist turned critic, Sherry Turkle, in her recent book, Alone Together.

Perhaps the critics are right to focus on the ethics of using technology to economise on love, but that doesn't mean their answer is correct. Surely humans' capacity for love can be used for more important things than motivating unpaid drudgery. Let me pick up the feminist line that I began with. Care is at the root of the feminist critique of our society. Feminists note that the need for care, and thus dependency on others (in childhood, sickness, and old-age), is an essential and significant feature of human nature that 'masculine' political philosophers carelessly neglect in their modeling of just relationships between independent rational adult individuals. The fact that human beings need care, argue the feminists, generates a corresponding obligation on others to provide it. And this in turn requires consideration of how a just society should distribute and remunerate the burden of care work fairly among its members. In particular, we shouldn't just dump it on female family members.

Feminists have sometimes tried to make their case by talking up the moral significance of both care-work and dependency relationships, and asking that their intrinsic value be properly honoured by the rest of society. Yet it seems to me that wiping bottoms, whether they belong to babies or Alzheimers sufferers, is properly seen as a burdensome necessity rather than as dignified work. And that being in a condition of dependency on others is itself an indignity that most people strive to avoid. Humans deserve better. So if robots become sophisticated enough to perform such work then they offer us something tremendous: liberation from the burdens of care for both traditional givers (women) and receivers (especially adults reduced to dependency). We would be able to resolve the 'feminist problem' of distribution technologically rather than politically or morally.

By freeing humans from many of the burdens of care, robots will allow us to reduce our mutual dependency, and particularly our use of love to establish cloying moral obligations to meet those needs. Consider an earlier innovation with similar effects. Until very recently, people were forced to insure themselves against their disability and old age by raising enough children that at least one would be willing and able to support them. But that required parents to brainwash their children into an idea of 'love' clogged with moral obligations, turning them into an instrument for their parents' will. The invention of social insurance removed the threat of such poverty and immediately ended the need for such brainwashing. While one might miss certain aspects of the tradition of filial piety, it is hard to see the change as a moral failure. Love seems better – freer – when it isn't contaminated by self-interest, power imbalances, and coercion.

Robots as lovers

Robots won't merely ameliorate the need for human intimacy and thus the use of love for instrumental purposes. They also seem to have attractions as companions in their own right. So far the most sophisticated social robots are those developed to ease the loneliness of the elderly (unsurprisingly, ageing socially inept Japan is at the forefront). At least some people find these companion robots more attractive than humans: they are more straightforward to relate to and less demanding than ordinary ornery humans. But it seems to me that even in the most intimate sphere, and for psychologically healthy individuals in their prime, robots could eventually become more attractive than humans as companions.


Motorised sex devices are a hundred or more years old. There may still be some scope for improvement at that mechanical level, but I think the key innovation of robot lovers will be in pretending. Specifically, robots will be designed so as to allow their human owners to pretend that they are loved. And everyone wants to be loved.

Physically, this would require robots to look enough like a person (not even a very perfect replica) for humans to relate to. Cognitively, this would require robots to simulate the perfect lover, that is, the perfect worshipper. This lover asks about your day in a voice that suggests they actually want to hear about it. It agrees with you about what a bitch your boss is, and remembers that mean thing she did last year too! It remembers your birthday, but also all the things you like and don't like. It cooks wonderful things, and doesn't complain when you get fat. And so on. Basically, it's a Stepford wife.

Actual humans can't keep up this level of worshipful attention. It requires a degree of self-abnegation incompatible with maintaining one's own individuality. Focusing so much on another person's needs is also immensely cognitively demanding, and, since humans only have so many hours of high quality attention to spend in a day (or a life), it must come at the expense any other projects we might like to have. Humans want good lovers, but humans make bad lovers.

Even relatively primitive robots would make better lovers. They will not only be much better at attending to your needs, especially your emotional needs, with their sophisticated algorithms for reading your micro-expressions, their perfect memory, indefatigable attentiveness, and so on. They will also be much better at the emotional labour required of the perfect lover. That is, because they have no emotional states of their own to overcome, they will have none of the difficulties humans have in presenting the right emotional states at the right time to fit their lover's own needs and wishes.

One might agree that it would be exceedingly pleasant to be worshipped so comprehensively. But surely this ersatz version of love would satisfy only the laziest. People want to be really loved, not merely to be the object of a performance of love. So we would still want and seek the real love that only a human can provide.

I think this underestimates humans' ability to delude ourselves. Sherry Turkle's research showed how quickly people can come to treat their robot assistants as companions and pour out their hearts to them. (That's one of the things she found so disturbing.) Even the relatively primitive robots already developed can, with a few tricks like maintaining eye contact and smiling when we speak, give us the strong impression of a caring presence that cares about us and that we want to care about us. So I think it will be possible to actually fall in love with a robot, and not merely to enjoy their performance of love. And, unlike inter-human relationships, since there is only one prickly unreliable individualist in the relationship, it will probably be easier to stay in love with your robot lover.