Love, Inc

The intersections of emotion and capitalism.

Will We Marry Machines?

In the future, we will fall in love with machines.

Remember that scene in the early (1973) Woodie Allen film with the Orgasmatron? Who watching that film hasn't thought: Hmm, maybe an orgasmatron would be way better than a spouse? After all, an orgasmatron doesn't have an insane mother for you to deal with, or surley teenagers from a previous marriage, or even demands on your time when you really do have to finish that project for your boss. An Orgasmatron would be the perfect mate except, of course, for the emotional part. It can't show emotion; it can only give pleasure.  

In the near future, however, we will have machines—robots, computer, devices-—that will be able to mimic human emotion. And their mimicry of human emotion will cause us to feel actual emotion for them—gratitude, frustration, and yes, even love. And that, at least according to MIT ethnographer Sherry Turkle, is the problem.  

Turkle has studied "sociable machines" for the past 15 years, including robotic pets for the elderly and a robot named Cog, and predicts that in the near future such machines will be used for a variety of previously human roles. Babysitting, eldercare, pet care, even workers will be performed by machines that act as if they're human.

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And it is that "as if" that is the danger.  Because of course they won't be human. They'll be better than humans. They won't get frustrated, have emotional break downs, over sleep, or yell at anyone. As a parent, I can already see that a robot would be way better than me at taking care of my kids. And as a spouse? Forget about it. I would so leave me for a machine.

But perhaps the real problem isn't that sociable machines are better than we are, but the very fact that we want to be perfect in the first place. Americans are constantly looking for the perfect fill in the blank—body, car, house, child, marriage. Yet perfection is an impossibility, a promise eternally delayed, so why do we insist on wanting it?  

Perhaps the answer to that lies not in technology, but society. Consumer capitalism relies on the "new and improved" product to get us to throw our current one out and buy the next. It is this quest for better and better that is central to our economy and our culture and, of course, our relationships. Don't like your spouse? Throw him out and trade up. Same with your car, your house, even your pet. Kids are trickier—but you can always follow this new parenting plan or go to that child psychiatrist or give them such and such a drug hoping for better, maybe even nearly perfect, offspring.

Until we decide that perfection is a dead end, we will want perfect companions. And let's face it, machines are far closer to perfection than we mere mortals will ever be.  

Laurie Essig, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology and women and gender studies at Middlebury College.

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